Last night I had the opportunity to attend Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre in London. Having read it not long ago, I arrived expecting heartrending professions of love, stately background characters, comic relief now and then, and period costumes. I also half expected to fall asleep as it has been a long week of traveling and I have seen various similar versions of RJ since my birth (the daughter of an English teacher, I likely was hearing it read aloud before I was even born.)
Well, I certainly was in no danger of falling asleep and was in fact on the edge of my seat for the entire production, from its disturbing opening in which two clownish figures representing Ladies Montague and Capulet gave birth to coffins to its sexually-charged dance scene (also featuring the Shakespearean equivalent of the Village People singing YMCA) to its gruesome ending in which, rather than uniting the two households, Romeo shouts “bang” as he pantomimes killing everyone.
Shocking is perhaps the most mild word to describe this production. Others had called it “rubbish” or, less gently, “poop.” But although it ruffled my moral feathers and baffled my literary mind, I cannot dismiss it so easily as a piece of mere modern, avant garde trash. Was it likely crafted with the intent of upsetting Shakespearean purists? Yes. But was there no value at all in seeing it? That stands to be decided.
When it comes to anything that even vaguely might be considered art, I am of the firm opinion that it must be evaluated according to the triangular concept of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. I say “triangular” to indicate that these three abstracts cannot be separated from each other without severely degrading themselves as individuals and thus the work of art in question. (i.e., a beautiful painting that does not inspire contemplation of truth or practical goodness, is beautiful in itself but lacking in ultimate and lasting impact, thus making it a lesser work of art. But that is another blog post- or perhaps thesis- in itself.)
In discussing the play afterwards with the brave souls who stuck it out, we thoroughly examined its every aspect according to these three ideals, which happen to comprise the motto of our honors institute.
First and perhaps easiest, was this production beautiful? Regardless of personal taste, was this a well-crafted show? Were the costumes done with excellence? Was the staging effective? How were other art forms incorporated? Was the acting convincing? Did it authentically communicate the original text?
Overall, yes, I would say there was a great deal of beauty within this production. Was I a fan of the male stripper character who showed up just in time for an odd dance party scene? Not particularly. Not at all, actually. Did I understand why ballistic missiles were hung above the stage without any explanation? No.
However, the costumes (besides Speedo-pasty guy) were done with a great attention to detail. While the entire cast besides Romeo and Juliet were dressed in harlequin attire to match their ribald and careless personalities, the young couple were dressed in an elegant and simple suit and dress, complete with foreboding and fitting Mexican death masks. This was a beautiful choice for it highlighted that amidst a chaotic and pointless world, serious love might might still bloom, albeit for a short time.
Similarly, the staging was magnificent. Scenes such as the death of Tybalt and the anticipation of the newlywed Juliet upon her bed were layered to show the intricate weaving of death and life which characterize this play, no matter the version. I grant that the staging of nearly every scene (I can never forget the YMCA dance party disaster) was stunning.
Other arts such as music were also incorporated, featuring the stellar vocals of the Mercutio. The song itself was cheesy, but it did serve well to enhance the drama of the ending and tug at the audience’s heartstrings. Well done. Still, I have to take some points off for the other main song being YMCA sung by a rowdy Lord Capulet dressed in a dinosaur costume.
The acting was convincing. That much was clear to everyone. While I do not necessarily like the way certain characters were portrayed, such as Friar Laurence who seemed crafted specifically to mock all religion, they did well in their assigned roles. The stand-outs were certainly Juliet, whose intentionality shown in every phrase, Romeo, who was simply adorable, and Mercutio, who was disturbingly impactful.
As far as communicating the original text…I could rant forever about how the ending was cut so that no reconciliation was truly reached and thus the near-comedy ending of the original was tossed carelessly away. But I will restrain myself…for now. The original was most clearly expressed in the scenes between Romeo and Juliet themselves; these sweet, intimate moments were a refreshing contrast from the raunchy update of the rest of the play. I would like to believe that this tension between the loud pursuits of the majority and the confused love of young people is true to what Shakespeare must have intended.
Oh, and let’s not forget the double entendres. Every single one (and then some) that Shakespeare wrote was emphasized as a crude joke. So there’s that.
Beautiful? In many ways, if surprising in light of my initial shock and disgust, yes.
Did this production effectively communicate a message of truth? Was this message what Shakespeare would have intended? Did the audience leave with new ideas and questions worth pursuing? Did it lend itself to discussion and a greater understanding of any concept? Did it speak to any realities that need addressing?
These questions were the most troubling. While my mind has come up with multiple messages that could have been communicated by this production, I cannot settle on any one in particular. To me, this is a fault of the direction. With Shakespeare, there are so many themes worth highlighting that choosing one to focus on should not be a difficult feat. However, this production was so scattered that it was impossible to truly know what it was attempting to convey.
I hypothesized that it was highlighting the idea that genuine love between a young man and woman is doomed to die in light of a sexually-charged, consequence-free society. Others speculated that it meant that this love was worth dying for in the light of cheap physical pleasure. One friend brought up nihilism. Another thought it was a statement in favor LGBT living while still another thought it was an argument against this. Some thought perhaps it was to promote feminism or unveil abusive parental relationships. Theories were wide-ranging to say the least.
While I value ambiguity in art for the purpose of leading to discussion, I still find it immensely troubling when a piece has so many messages that it ultimately has none. This version of RJ was so varied in its potential messages that I fear it ended up saying nothing. Any truth discovered by viewing this was only achieved after hours of speculative conversation rather than simply individual contemplation of the work itself. Thus, in touching on so many different potential messages, I believe it failed in communicating fully a single truth of any kind.
In its defense, it lent itself well to discussion, but I am afraid this is more because it was a scandalous spectacle than a work of true philosophy. Any truth discovered was achieved through our own mental efforts to understand something, anything of what we just watched rather than through the production itself.
True? Nada. Discussion and thought-provoking due to utter confusion? Yes. I suppose that is a small point in its favor.
Did this production highlight good, even if doing so by portraying darkness? Did this play have the effect of catharsis, portraying wrong and death so that we might purge our inclinations/emotions and live rightly instead? Or, rather, did it draw us into its moral degeneracy? How did our consciouses react during and after? Was it edifying?
Romeo and Juliet is certainly not an example of how we should live; it is full of contention, deception, murder, offense, etc. However, the same could be said of a tragedy such as Macbeth. Plays such as this seek to direct audiences toward better things by demonstrating graphically the consequences of vice. However, this production fell short, for the characters who lived most wrongfully ended with the fewest consequences, perhaps deceiving less-discerning viewers into believing this makes these poor choices acceptable.
In Macbeth, the characters who commit sins end up devising their own downfalls. However, in this production, the characters who are most clearly shown to be abusive, lustful, and prideful survive while the two characters who pledge fidelity end in death. This does not redirect our hearts toward good by demonstrating evil, but rather excuses evil at the expense of good.
At first, I was disgusted by some of the things I saw on stage, as I would be in any production that features characters filled with such lust, pride, and hate. This was no different than I would likely feel watching Lady Macbeth declare that she will “unsex” herself and commit murder to achieve power. However, while I would have continued to be repelled by Lady Macbeth’s degeneracy, I become slowly more drawn in by what I was consuming in this version of RJ. This is dangerous, for rather than highlighting light by darkness, which may well have been the original intention, this production more and more pulled me into its darkness.
That said, while my mind enjoyed the challenge of analyzing and seeking some excuse for this production so that I might exalt it as art, my conscious warned during and after that it was simply not edifying.
Was this production good in the sense that it promoted contemplation of and practice of right morality? Not really. I concede that I adored the contrast between what was portrayed as real and gentle love between the married Romeo and Juliet and the unrestrained and rough lust of the other characters. However, this is the only edifying facet of the production as a whole.
Conclusion: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful…
This production was good in that it emphasized (contrary to many versions) the sanctity of the marriage of Romeo and Juliet amidst the callous affections of the other characters. However, overall it left me reeling as I sought after any other thread of morality and was, in my thoughts, instead dragged downwards into its degeneracy.
This production was true only in our own analysis and conclusions, not in its own effective communication of a reality or even an opinion. We arrived at many interesting ideas and interpretations, but it failed to convey any one clear message.
This production was beautiful in that, though stylistically opposite what I would have chosen and purposely offensive to conservative Shakespeareans, it was crafted with exceptional intentionality and detail. As an artist, I appreciated this immense care and attention to all facets of presentation.
I hold to the idea that to be a genuinely valuable work of art, something must be good, true, and beautiful in some sense. It is a performance that toes the line not only between shock-factor and authenticity but between that of good art and bad. It is up to the individual viewer to decide his or her stance on this. My own opinion? It has its virtues but its vices detract from it so much that it becomes a lesser work of art than it ought to have been had it more firmly founded upon goodness, truth, and beauty.
For more info, here is the link to the Globe Theatre’s synopsis: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/romeo-and-juliet-2017