Disclaimer: I actually do not like Romeo and Juliet. I have to be honest. Part of my dislike of the play comes from the fact that two summers ago I worked for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in the box office and they happened to be doing R&J. I had to wait for my carpool buddy, who worked in the house, most nights, so I saw the second half of the production VERY MANY times. It was good, but not that good.
Disclaimer: I still really like Romeo and Juliet just because the two are so gosh darn cute when they have their little love-struck banter. It’s a complicated relationship I have with the play.
With that out of the way, I just need to say that the production of Romeo y Julieta, which closed last week at the Teatro Helénico in Mexico City, was the best production I have ever seen.
You know how you go to see a production of Romeo and Juliet and then about a third of the way through you forget that Juliet is really supposed to be 13? I mean, it’s not a fact we like to focus on, because it makes the whole play just a whole lot creepier. But, yes, Juliet is 13. What happens when it gets cast in most productions I’ve seen, discounting high school productions, in which the actress is probably 15 anyway, is Juliet is always played by a grown woman. Through no fault of her own, said actress, no matter how fantastic she is, cannot remember what it’s like to be 13. How 13-year-olds act, speak, think about love. And we cannot set aside the fact that Juliet appears to us as a 25-year-old, 30-year-old, etc. A grown woman is standing in front of us. Romeo, likewise, is supposed to be young–maybe about 18 (let’s not focus on how creepy that is either)–and the actors playing Romeo also don’t quite remember how they acted when they were 18 when they had a HUGE crush on a girl.
By a stroke of luck and incredibly talented actors, this Romeo and this Juliet felt like teenagers. They were adorable, giggly, moody, and just plain naive. And I cannot imagine anyone else doing a better job during the balcony scene than Cassandra Ciangherotti as Juliet. Their brilliant work really aided the director in imagining this hate-filled world suddenly struck with a beam of pure love, something to liven our spirits and make us think that everything will be okay, despite the “purple fountains issuing from [the battling families’] veins” (see my other post about the role medicine and medical language plays in Romeo and Juliet, “Romeo and Juliet: Critique of Medical Theory”). Their lightheartedness, love, and down-right adorable exchanges make the second act and quick succession of deaths all the more difficult to bear, which is the point.
Nota bene: If there’s ever a marriage in the first act of a Shakespeare play, you can bet the two newly weds won’t have the most stable and long-lasting of relationships (see: Romeo and Juliet, All’s Well that Ends Well, etc).
The reason I went to see this production was to do research for my thesis on political adaptations of Shakespeare in Latin America (Mexico in this case, as you could guess). Now, as Romeo and Juliet is a story about love, this production was less outrightly political as, say, King Lear or Macbeth. There is no political system being analyzed, no conflict between the personal and political ambitions, no murders for political advancement. But Romeo and Juliet is no less political than any other play, for, as we may know, the political IS personal. Romeo and Juliet is the story of what happens to a society when anger and hatred and partisan fighting are so extreme that even young love doesn’t have the space to flourish. It is the story of a world so filled with violence that only the death of our young people can bring it back from the edge. It is the story of the death of hope and the loss of innocence in the oversized battle for one-person’s worldview. Something easily imaginable in Shakespeare’s time, and, though clearly we are very far away from the bloodshed of Verona, at least in the United States, the feeling of that society is all to familiar.
Which brings me to point two:
Oh man, the design was cool. As a student of theater, I’m perhaps more readily inclined to see strange dance, mask work, and simple design in theater than your average broadway-goer, say. But I think director’s, Mauricio García Lozano, design impacted every audience member. It was simplistic, grunge, and powerful. The use of jackets to define each character and masks to make everyone slip into the background provided an easy way for actors to slide back and forth between their assigned roles and general members of the society, which really drove home the point that Romeo and Juliet is a play about social pressures and social issues.
A great moment in the beginning: Those familiar with the play will recall that it usually begins with Sampson, Gregory, and company and the “do you bite your thumb at me, sir” exchange, which breaks into a huge fight. In this production, instead, the fight is actually the entire cast playing sticks very loudly and forcing a dancer to tap dance to the beat until she collapses from exhaustion: a metaphor for the social pressures that maintain the anger and force the cycle of violence to continue. Let us not forget that, aside from the Prince and Romeo, when he turns to Tybalt and refuses to kill him in the beginning of the second act, every member of this society, from Lady Capulet to Friar Lawrence to the members of the audience, is responsible for the continuation of this “ancient grudge [breaking] to new mutiny.”
But, wait, some of you will say, “Friar Lawrence agrees to help Romeo because he thinks this wedding of opposites will finally bring an end to the hatred.” SURE, until he agrees to help them keep it a secret, encourages Romeo to leave, and then goes and leaves Juliet in the chamber to KILL HERSELF OVER ROMEO. By never insisting that Romeo and Juliet reveal their wedding to their parents, he ensures that any possible amnesty or forgiveness for familial crimes is confined to the two young lovers, distinctly never part of the feud by their own admission, and, thus, essentially nullifies his proposal that “For this alliance may so happy prove, / To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.”
Remember back a while ago when I was talking about translation in Shakespeare and Taming of the Shrew? Well, I succeeded in finding an AMAZING translation of Shakespeare, courtesy of Alfredo Michel Modenessi, UNAM professor and translator of this play. Wowee, what a script. It was funny, it kept the original sense of the word when it could, and it even understood that “wherefore art thou Romeo” should be translated as “porque eres Romeo” NOT “donde estás Romeo.” What a revelation.
It even kept the sonnet that Romeo and Juliet create for the “palm to palm is holy palmers kiss” back and forth!! And it even adhered to Shakespearean sonnet rules!! It was incredible.
I do have one complaint, which I may reconsider after I speak with the translator, which is, though Modenessi was meticulous in translating the sonnet and keeping some other rhymes, that the translation still failed to be in verse. If they can do it for Dante and maintain terza rhima in English then they sure should be able to get iambic pentameter in Spanish, or, at lease romantic Spanish verse to accommodate for the fact that words have more syllables in Spanish on average. Poetry, gosh darn! I want poetry.
Here’s the event page for more interviews and information: http://www.helenico.gob.mx/romeo-y-julieta.html
And finally, check out the interview with the Cassandra and Adrián in the most recent GQ México: