THOUGHTS FROM AN ENGLISH TEACHER ON JULIET & ROMEO
Juliet and Romeo: a beautifully haunting reimagining of the “star-cross’d lovers” for the 21st century
By Curtis Petrie
Decidedly Jazz Danceworks’ Juliet and Romeo is a 21st century meta take on William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Kimberley Cooper and Cory Bowles’ adaptation is sinuous proof of the eternal relevance of the Bard’s version. The trope of the star-crossed lovers lives within the human condition and thus our literature. From Odysseus and Penelope to Bella and Edward, storytellers have been plumbing the depths of this tragic archetype for centuries. Shakespeare himself drew from Salernitano, Bandello, and Brooke to craft his version. And, in turn, the Bard’s work has spawned countless interpretations by the likes of Sergei Prokofiev, Leonard Bernstein, Kenneth MacMillan, Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann. Juliet and Romeo joins this chain of evolution, dissecting and upending the classic tale while maintaining the deeper thematic elements that make Shakespeare’s version so timeless.
This production plumbs the ethical, psychological and emotional depths of the story in a manner that is often diluted by ‘faithful’ productions of the play. Juliet and Romeo is vital proof that the Bard’s stories are infinitely adaptable to the needs, concerns and perspectives of each era. This malleability is taken to delicious extremes in this production. While it doesn’t follow the purely linear arc of the original; the intriguing mashup creates a compelling live experience but also a glimpse into the elements that made theatre in the Elizabethan era so tantalizingly dangerous and entertaining. For example, theatre goers in Shakespeare’s day were as much drawn by the promise of an entertaining story as by the joy of language. The ebb and flow of Shakespeare’s verse was scintillating, not unlike the way today’s hip hop emcees or slam poets can captivate an audience.
The prologue to Juliet and Romeo evokes a tone more reminiscent of Amiri Baraka or Gill Scott Heron than the Bard himself. The rhythms, timbre and social critiques of these progenitors of Hip-Hop echo in Bowles’ narrator. Where Shakespeare’s prologue launches the play in a poetic modality that hints at the brutal nature of the feud, “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” and its tragic costs, “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”. Bowles’ version delves more deeply into the darker underbelly of the violence and misogyny at the heart of the story. Thus, exposing the pomposity and braggadocio of the male characters rather than reveling in it. Where Shakespeare’s prologue pulls the audience into the tragedy; Bowles’ narrator grabs the audience by the throat and implicates us all in the bloodbath and chaos that violence leaves in its wake.
LAUGH, we want you to. CHEER, we ask you to. Rub your hands together in glee.
Thirsty to drink from the fountains of blood tapped by your neighbours, The rulers of the world. The people that tried.
The man, woman, baby that cried. The soldier that died. Where virtues collide. Slaves, masters, bitches, bastards.
The narrator exposes the ugly costs of tragic falls from grace. And, it is sadly the innocent who pay the greatest price when the powerful fall. The audience are not left to be passive observers of tragedy but rather ensnared in its wake. We are all living under Capulets and Montagues. We are all living with the chaos of ‘feuds’ that are beyond our control. We all live in some sort of Verona. A universality that is made all the more compelling by the clever stage design that uses the living Calgary city scape as the background of the production. So, when the narrator implores, “This ain’t a city falling apart. No, it’s them bringing it on themselves” and that the peace has been, “[…] disturbed by these beasts” we see not only the play but also Calgary in a new disturbing light. Then, the chaos of the ‘feud’ explodes like a hammer dropped on a firing cap: “Click! said the hammer to the gun. Bla-dow! Said the finger to the trigger.” The bullet of this production presents us with our, “[…] new Verona” and the ironic layers of intertextuality launch us into a compelling reimagining of Romeo and Juliet’s tragic love story.
This reimagining takes its most visceral and palpable form in the sensuous interplay between Kimberley Cooper’s choreography, Nick Fraser’s music and the strikingly edgy staging. Kimberley Cooper’s vision certainly casts Shakespeare’s play in a new visage. As clearly evidenced in the re-imagination of the “Queen Mab” scene where sensuous dancing and intricate choreography casts the cynicism and perverse imagery of Mercutio’s troubled imagination in a new light. Every element of the production channels the chaos that is at the heart of Elizabethan Tragedy. There is so much happening visually and sonically that the audience cannot possibly catch every moment or nuance. The struggle is at once overwhelming and compelling. The overall effect is hauntingly beautiful. Thereby heightening the pathos that is so central to Elizabethan tragedy.
A pathos that Bowles and Cooper clearly shift to Juliet. By placing Juliet at the forefront of the story, the audience is not so much presented with a retelling of Shakespeare’s play but rather granted a new perspective into the character and the story itself. While Shakespeare’s female characters have always been intriguingly strong and well rounded; they are seldom the focus of most productions. However, here we get a decidedly feminist exploration of Juliet – an exploration of the pain and isolation women (particularly young women) face at the hands of those in power. It is a visceral condemnation of the ways in which her family use her for their own dubious means. Here, Juliet becomes a potently tragic symbol of all that young women are stripped of. Each element of the production plays a role in depicting this loss, but the closing piece “Open Letter to Juliet,” is perhaps the most haunting and resonant. Pulling from the real-life letters sent to Juliet in Verona (the Juliet Club), the audience is drawn into a heart rending depiction of the depths of Juliet’s “woe” as seen through the eyes of a contemporary young woman. When she states, “We loved you. We’re sorry. We failed you dear Juliet.” the audience is left with disturbing questions that clearly resonate in this era of cyber bullying and the Me-Too movement. Through this scene Juliet becomes a tragic hero for our time – a hero who suffers from what Arthur Miller called the, “fateful wound […] of indignity.” The poignant interplay of the narration, the music and the choreography allows Juliet to gain her rightful place in the order of things and caps off Juliet and Romeo as a fitting and cathartic addition to this centuries old story.