The Watermill Theatre perform a new version of Romeo & Juliet here next month – so we thought we’d take a look back at one of the world’s best-loved plays.
This certainly isn’t the dusty version you remember from your English classroom. Performed by a cast of actor-musicians and set in a nightclub, it’s a vibrant and different production.
But putting your own spin on Shakespeare’s text is nothing new…
1 You can do a lot with that one play
In 2010, Twitter was in its infancy – but that didn’t stop the Royal Shakespeare Company, who took to it for their production, Such Tweet Sorrow. The story of Romeo & Juliet played out in real time, with actors living their characters’ lives online. It spread out to encompass everything from Xbox Live – where Romeo could be found playing Call Of Duty – to Spotify and Last.fm, where fans selected a playlist for Mercutio’s wake.
A year later, Gnomeo & Juliet made it to the big screen, starring James McAvoy and Emily Blunt. Where Such Tweet Sorrow had stuck firmly to the original story, this re-imagined the play as a forbidden love between two garden gnomes, surrounded by their lawn ornament friends. It even featured a cameo for Shakespeare himself (or at least his statue), as voiced by Patrick Stewart.
2 Death isn’t final
If there’s one thing that everyone knows about Romeo & Juliet, it’s that the lovers die at the end. No other tragic love ever comes close. Not Jack and Rose from Titanic, not Wuthering Heights’ Cathy and Heathcliff; it’s Shakespeare’s ‘star-crossed lovers’ that we keep on coming back to.
But that isn’t always the case. We just talked about Gnomeo & Juliet, but the other big twist in that version is that (spoilers!) the film ends happily. The lovers reunite, their parents become friends, and even Tybalt returns, having been glued back together after his apparent death during the lawnmower race (it’s a long story).
But that’s nothing unusual. Starting in the English Restoration, this was actually the only way the play was performed (that is, with a happy ending, not with a lawnmower race). Juliet would waken from the potion before Romeo killed himself, and the lovers would live happily ever after. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the original ending would return to the stage.
Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with changing it up – Shakespeare himself wasn’t above mixing and matching from his favourite sources.
The Montagues and Capulets first appeared in Dante’s Divine Comedy, when they’re mentioned as competing political powers whose rivalry has ruined them both.
The story of the tragic lovers, meanwhile, dates back as far as the Ancient Greeks, in the form of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This features parallels to our version: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. Xenophon of Ephesus wrote a similar version, introducing the idea of a sleeping potion that mimics death.
From these sources and more, Shakespeare started work on a play that is still being performed over 400 years later.
4 Maybe there was no ‘balcony scene‘
Hark, what light through yonder window breaks?
The ‘Balcony Scene,’ in which Romeo calls up to his love from the garden, is justifiably iconic. It’s probably the first image that springs to mind (unless that’s Claire Danes in her angel wings, and Leo in a suit of armour).
But according to Lois Leveen, writing in The Atlantic, the balcony is a much more modern invention. She argues that Shakespeare probably hadn’t even heard of a balcony when Romeo & Juliet was written, pointing to a book published years after Romeo and Juliet, in which the writer expresses his surprise at these strange features on Italian buildings.
According to Leveen, Shakespeare was probably picturing something more like a window. As for our version, it’s taking place in a modern-day bar in Verona, owned by the Capulets. We’ll wait and see how they choose to stage this scene…
5 “If music be the food of love…”
So that quote comes from Twelfth Night (also here next month), but there’s no denying the link between musicians and Shakespeare’s lovers.
Baz Luhrmann’s neon fantasia, Romeo + Juliet, is about as 90s as things get, and the soundtrack is no exception – featuring Garbage, Radiohead and The Cardigans, it’s almost as famous as the movie it accompanies. But while those bands may have contributed their music to support Shakespeare’s story, the relationship goes both ways.
Taylor Swift’s Love Story is all about a teenage romance, one which follows the template right down to the names. But pretty much everyone has written their own Romeo & Juliet song, from Dire Straits, to Petula Clark, to Basement Jaxx.
Our version is set in a bar – and it’s got a love-song soundtrack all of its own. A cast of actor-musicians perform songs by Mumford & Sons, Hosier and The Vaccines, using the music of today to tell a story written 400 years ago.
See for yourself, when Romeo & Juliet arrives here from 6 June, in tandem with the Watermill Theatre’s production of twelfth Night. Tickets for both shows are available now.