Romeo and Juliet, at the Chicago Shakespeare TheatreLast week, I saw the Chicago Shakespeare Company’s newest staging of Romeo and Juliet. It reminded me that It’s been about ten years or so since I saw a staging of R&J featuring actual chemistry between the two leads. I’m still on the lookout for it.

Shakespeare, like any long-lived, evolving phenomenon, is subject to trends. They keep things interesting. For example, as the director cited in the program, Romeo and Juliet was used as a female star vehicle throughout the late 20th century. As a result, the role of Juliet would be played by actresses inappropriately old for the role.

The director also notes that in the last 20 years or so, Shakespeare stagings have re-emphasized the bawdy humor. The plays have always contained sex jokes, included originally to appeal to the cheap-ticket audience. Until recently this humor was downplayed or cut out entirely. Now it’s played up so much that I must have counted five or six pantomimed pelvic thrusts at this most recent performance.

Trends are good. It’s important to look at classics in new, interesting ways. This most recent staging, interesting though it was, signaled to me that it’s time for the trend to shift again.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t want to rip this production completely apart. Chicago Shakespeare is one of the most reputable Shakespeare companies in the world. And this production featured a very compelling forced-perspective set, a beautiful and unobtrusive musical score, swashbuckling swordfights, inventive modern costuming, and I could go on. But the interesting things that I remember from the show were all technical.

I can’t say that I was emotionally involved with any of the performances. I can’t remember the last performance of Romeo and Juliet I saw where I was. Each actor had some good individual moments, but there was nothing interesting going on between actors.  This interpretation was identical to every R&J interpretation I’ve seen in the last ten or fifteen years. Better executed, of course, but with identical fundamental choices and on-the-nose interpretations.

Let me give you an example. When Romeo first approaches Juliet at the Capulet party, he begins his sonnet like this:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

I have only ever seen this approach delivered one way: naive, earnest ass-kissing.

Once, just once, I’d like to see Romeo approach Juliet with a little insolence. Actors, by and large, are tremendous flirts. They just forget how to do it if someone gives them lines in iambic pentameter.

Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary, Romeo and Juliet from the Chicago Shakespeare production

Jeff Lillico and Joy Farmer-Clary, Romeo and Juliet from the Chicago Shakespeare production

Can you imagine how great that approach would be if Romeo approach with some mojo going? Maybe he’s a little cocky. Maybe he’s grinning when he says this. Are you telling me he lives his life as a romantic, but still picks up women like a total wussbag? Who says it always has to be so damn sappy and sentimental!

You may fundamentally disagree with that choice, but at least it’s interesting and authentic. I think it’s less believable to interpret these opening lines as if you instantly know you’ve found the love of your life. It’s more authentic to have that realization build over the course of the scene.

I’m not talking about giving Shakespeare unjustified interpretations. I’m talking about getting out of actor-laziness and letting some interpersonal chemistry show through. Actors and directors think people hate Shakespeare because they don’t understand it. That’s bullshit. In this day and age, they understand it just fine. People hate Shakespeare because no one portrays it with emotional honesty, and therefore it feels like a pompous exercise in wailing and gesticulating.

The first problem is that the playing spaces are too big. If I had to put a Shakespeare company together, I’d do it as an intimate-space production, and let the story play out subtly on the actors’ faces. That way any bad habits of grandiosity, fakery, ignorance of the meaning of the lines, over-emoting and whatnot would stick out like a sore thumb and be quickly dispensed with.

Having exhausted all creativity in interpretation, modern Shakespearean actors and directors get coached in verse, which means basing your interpretation on the timing implied by the rhythm and punctuation of the poetry. They then differentiate with technical skill: awesome sets, lighting, sound, fights and costumes. That’s been the trend for the past ten or fifteen years.

If you are reading this and you have anything to do with Shakespeare, help swing the trend in a different direction: Naturalism, subtlety, double-meanings, chemistry, banter, fun, and all the things you would naturally include if you were doing anything other than Shakespeare.

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