Jennifer D. Wade Journal

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Blog posts February 2011

Last night, a friend and I traveled to BUCKNELL to see a production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet put on by THE ACTING COMPANY. The Acting Company is a theatre group co-founded by John Houseman. Its alumni include Kevin Kline, Rainn Wilson and Mark Moses.

Romeo and Juliet may have been the first Shakespeare play I ever saw performed. During my sophomore year in high school, a teacher took our English class to Allentown to see the 1968 MOVIE VERSION directed by Franco Zeffirelli. I don't recall if we read the entire play in class or maybe just parts of it.

A few years later, while doing my JYA at Leeds, I saw the play as staged by the ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY. (As fate would have it, they are doing it again THIS SEASON. The trailer looks rather interesting.) I saw the play in 1987, at the Barbican in London. It had moved there after being done at Stratford the year before. Here are some notes regarding the production, which was directed by Michael Bogdanov:

This modern-dress production boldly cut the text after Juliet's suicide, replacing it with the Prologue, now spoken by the Prince to a crowd of journalists and photographers in a cynical exploitation of the dead lovers. Sean Bean and Niamh Cusack's lovers were the rare possessors of sincerity and innocence in a materialistic and hypocritical society. This society was excitingly evoked on stage, with Armani suits and jazz bands and a glamorous Tybalt in black leather and low-slung red sports car. Romeo poisoned himself with a drug from a hypodermic needle.

 I definitely remember Tybalt. I also recall Michael Kitchen riding around stage on a bicycle. And, I recall the scene where Juliet's father spoke the line "What ho!" into a speakerphone. I don't specifically recall reading the play for the Shakespeare course I had that year, but I'm guessing we did because I do remember the tutor mentioning the "What ho!" scene during one of our sessions.

So, if you're reading carefully, you realize that I may have read Romeo and Juliet twice but really can't remember. I didn't have time to read it a third (or possibly a first) time before going to see the production at Bucknell. So, I'll give my impressions of that now. Then, I'll attempt to read the play and post my thoughts on that separately.

The staging made use of a single set with a bench being moved around as needed. Near the end, a bed was brought on stage. The actors dressed in costumes out of the early 20th Century. I can't think of any particular reason to set it there, although it didn't detract from the production. One of the earlier RSC productions made note of dressing the Montagues and Capulets in similar clothing to emphasize that one family was no different than the other. Maybe that's what the director was going for here.

This production (especially the first half) had a very bawdy tone, highlighted by Mercutio. The actor who played him had great presence and moved fluidly around the stage. The nurse also did well in bringing out the bawdy nature of her character. The actor who played Romeo was very expressive and handled the role well. Juliet, unfortunately, not so much. I think my main complaint is that while the first half moved along nicely (intermission followed immediately after the death of Tybalt), the second half seemed to drag. Maybe that's just the nature of the play since, once Tybalt dies, Romeo is banished and the lovers are soon separated and left to anguish alone.

The tragedy here is that Romeo and Juliet are both too young and too caught up in their passion to realize that banishment could have been the best thing ever to happen to them. After Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished by the prince, he whinges about having to leave Verona. In short, he fails to realize that it's a big world out there and, instead, can't imagine life outside Verona worth living - especially if Juliet is still in Verona.

For her part, Juliet really drops the ball. She knows that Tybalt is dead and pretends to care, but really she's upset because Romeo is banished. This is when her father issues the ultimatum: Marry Paris or get out of my house. Well, there's your out, honey! Defy daddy and have the friar help you get out of town so you can be with Romeo in Mantua. But, no! Juliet and the friar concoct this fake suicide plan which, as we all know, ends badly. Why not just skip the fake suicide and go right to Mantua? She would have had to wait a day or two at most. Then, daddy banishes Juliet, she wanders to the edge of the city where Romeo picks her up, and they live happily ever after.

But, no. Passion overrules common sense where everyone is concerned, and it takes the deaths of two young people to restore sanity.    

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Unfinished Business

While I wait for the latest blast of winter to start melting, I'll use the time to finish up some thoughts regarding my previous post regarding Macbeth.

As you may recall, I ended by asking the question: What the hell happened to Fleance? One of my friends was nice enough to do a little research via WIKIPEDIA and attempted to post a comment with his findings. For whatever reason, it never showed up. I then attempted to post the comment myself and it still didn't work. So, without further delay, here it is:

According to that unimpeachable bastion of scholarship, Wikipedia, Fleance survived - spirited away to England, I believe - and had a line of sons culminating in James I, the patron and monarch for whom Shakespeare had written this play. So Macbeth could be subtitled "The Unquestionable Validity of James I's Claim to the Throne."

What my friend neglected to mention is that, according to the Wikipedia entry, both Banquo and Fleance are probably fictional, but they did manage to make their way into some of the popular histories in and around Shakespeare's time.

The entry also mentions that some productions of Macbeth have Fleance returning at the end, usually with the army of Malcolm and Macduff. Malcolm still takes the crown, but the reappearance of Fleance offers some promise that the witches' prophecy will come true.

But, the original play does not end that way (When Banquo is murdered, Fleance flees, never to be heard from again) and, if I recall correctly, the scene he has with Banquo at the start of Act II was cut from BTE's shortened production, so his role in the story as a whole was minimized even further. No great loss, I say.

(Finishing up unfinished business at 10:40pm, Sunday, February 6)

One other thing I feel I should mention concerns my reading of Macbeth as an exploration of the Art vs. Nature theme that shows up so frequently in Shakespeare's plays. In the previous post, I pointed out several examples of how art (i.e. the witches' prophecies) led Macbeth to go against his natural instincts to honor Duncan as king and, instead, set out on a murderous campaign.

I think it could be argued that Banquo shared these thoughts. After encountering the witches, he agrees to talk to Macbeth about their prophecies when they have a chance. A short time later, he says to Fleance:

"A heavy summons lies like lead upon me,
And yet I would not sleep. Merciful powers
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose." (II, i, 6-9)

Whether Banquo would have conspired with Macbeth or tried to talk him out of killing Duncan, we'll never know. Macbeth had him killed before they ever had their big talk.

Anyway, one instance of "art" that I omitted in the earlier post is the part where Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, as foretold by the witches. Surely a moving forest is unnatural. It's also a clever bit of trickery to conceal the true number of Malcolm's forces. But, in this case, the "art of disguise" serves as a means to restore the natural order, which is Malcolm on the throne. So, art used for noble purposes succeeds, where art used for evil is, ultimately, doomed to fail.  

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