Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
These are the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Chorus pulls no punches in his brief summary of what the audience is about to see. The Chorus could hardly be clearer, thought I suppose we could break it down to one sentence. Two noble families discover that their ongoing feud brings about in the death of each houses’ child and in this tragedy finally find peace.
You could argue that the Chorus is offering the first “trigger warning” as he mentions the word death twice, notes the lover’s “end” and let’s us know they will “take their life”. The play is supposed to be a double warning about passion; old feuds make for new deaths and if not checked, lead to dangerous and rash decisions. In other words, passion, whether it is fueled by rage or by lust, can lead to bitter consequences.
You’d think these lines would be sufficient for the audience’s understanding of Shakespeare’s intent, but you’d be wrong. Time and time again directors ignore the playwright’s overall double theme of passion, so much so that Romeo and Juliet is now thought of as the western canon’s greatest love story. The biggest problem with this idea (besides offering the greatest love story as a double suicide) is in its execution; if this play is the west’s greatest love story, why then do so many productions fall short of offering a great love story? Why are audiences and reviewers always so critical of what they have just witnessed? I argue it is because we view the play much as Plato viewed forms; while the abstract is always pure and perfect, any attempt to recreate it into base matter will always result in some pollution and never fully measure up to our ideal play. Romeo and Juliet may be thought of as the perfect love story, but in reality it is far from the perfect love story. The audience’s expectation is never fully met, yet some how this play continues to draw both crowds and directors who are convinced that ‘This time it will be great!”
Take for example Kenneth Branagh’s latest adaptation, produced for the Garrick London stage. The play should have been a hit as it offers Branagh as co-director and two young actors, Lily James and Richard Madden who wowed audiences in Cinderella. Yet critics find little to love in about this play. The Guardian says, “The plot is slapdash; the coincidences preposterous; the main characters not interestingly conflicted, just doomed”. The Telegraph thought James saved the play (they must have seen it on a different night than I) but finds Madden “ordinary” and saw no value in Derek Jacob version of an older Mercutio: “He’s generations older than his pal Romeo, this refined gent who minces into view, in mock attitude of an old groover, silver-topped cane (sheathing a sword) a-twirl. He might have stepped out of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and there’s little sense of a life cruelly cut short when he hobbles off, bleeding to death”.
Both reviews found the play lackluster, and though both could point to some specifics, each noted that there was something amiss but couldn’t quite pin down exactly what it lacked. For me there is little doubt what it lacked. It lacked focus and the passion the play is supposed to represent.
The beautiful verses Shakespeare wrote fall flat when uttered by James and Madden. The Guardian notes, “Their speaking is earthbound”, and I have to agree; in fact most of the actors fall short of delivering anything that resembles passion. As my friend noted, Juliet’s father spoke his lines as if he was reading from cue cards, or at least yelling from cue cards.
In order for this play to work as any kind of love story the two characters must show the passion they have for each other along with the emotional instability brought on by a lost love. Shakespeare uses the word “death” 48 times in the play but balances these lines with some of his best flowery speech about love. Both Romeo and Juliet foreshadow their deaths several times but gush over each other with equal measure. But James stumbles and mumbles Juliet’s famous lover’s vow, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea. My love as deep. The more I give to thee,. The more I have, for both are infinite” yet emphasizes her fear of living without Romeo crying out, “Come, cords, come, nurse; I’ll to my wedding-bed; and death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!” The constant stress on death was so over the top that my friend turned to me and quipped, “Hey you think Romeo is going to die? This constant stress on death made the play less of a love story and more like an inevitable head on collision.
And here in lies the problem with this play. While the audience is being primed for the inevitable end so are the characters. It seems like the two know they are doomed from the start so any declaration of love rings hollow especially given the two actor’s lackluster performances.
This version of the play is a perfect illustration of my argument against this being a love story. The coincidences that result in the double deaths are absurd and when emphasized make for a strange and silly story (what is Paris doing in Juliet’s tomb in the middle of the night?). Shakespeare tells us right up front that this is warning to those who continue to fight and the consequences of hate. Yet for some reason we’ve convinced ourselves that this is a love story; one that is told rather badly time and time again. No wonder audiences and critics are always let down.
But if you really feel the need to see this version, it runs through August 3rd.