Sunday, April 17, 2011

Romeo Verité

My favorite Shakespeare teacher (55 years ago) really gave a workover to Romeo and Juliet.  She showed how it is a flawed play but interesting, in that you can see  Shakespeare innovating, improvising, learning its trade.

How flawed?  Well, she is the one who first showed me that Romeo isn't really much of a tragic hero--he's just a kid. It was she from whom I head the quip that it is not really a tragedy--rather, a comedy that ends badly (my friend Dave adds: throw in a couple of ensembles and you could have a Rossini opera).

How interesting?  The same teacher points out how Shakespeare makes a whole bunch of calculated choices here--and how they are theatrical choices, designed to make the play work better on stage.

Example: It's 1595 and Shakespeare is just coming out of his ornate over-the-top sonnet phase.   The poetry in RJ is indeed over the top--but the dramatic point is that over-the-top poetry creates a problem: these are kids who do not know the difference between words and life, so besotted with words that they forget how words can kill.

Example: Fully rounded characters.  Not just the leads--Romeo himself is perhaps not fully rounded.  But the Nurse, Mercutio, Benvolio, old Capulet--and hey, I'm not half done yet. The Nurse in particular: she must be the first of those vessels of comic vitality that Shakespeare does so inimitably and so well (and yet in a mind-numbing irony, she can be read as the cheerful, unintentional villain of the piece).

Better example: In Shakespeare sources, the events extend over months--Shakespeare gets it all down to less than a week.  And in the sources, the leads are--I forget precisely, but they are older.  Shakespeare makes them early teens.

All of which is a long buildup to a short point: last night for the first time ever, I saw an RJ in which the leads really were early teens.  And you know what?  It works, in pretty much the way Shakespeare would want it to work.

Not perfectly, of course--hey, these are kids, for many I bet the first time they did anything on stage.  They talk too fast.  Sometimes they don't seem to know what their character is up to; sometimes you suspect that they do but you do not know what their character is up to.  Sometimes they seem to forget that there is anyone else on stage.

But they got so much right: they got the raw energy, the torrential hormones, the uncrimped delight in life, the impulsiveness that is ultimately fatal.  In short, they are so much fun to watch.  And whether they realized it or not, they got Shakespeare, and he got them.  I figured I was going to like it but in retrospect, I wouldn't have missed it for anything.  

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