William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has maintained its centuries-long hold on the popular imagination for an obvious reason. Love — particularly of the idealized youthful variety — is never out of style.
But reencountering the play in new formats — “Romeo y Julieta,” the Public Theater’s bilingual podcast version (available on demand) and the National Theatre’s original film “Romeo & Juliet” (airing on PBS’ Great Performances April 23) — I see more clearly that romance is only half the answer.
The other half has to do with societal division. When Romeo and Juliet fall in love, they transgress not because they are an ill-suited match but because their families are sworn enemies. The context of their headlong infatuation is a blood feud that rages unabated in Verona.
The chorus sets the stage for the tale we are about to witness:
“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-crossed lovers take their life …”
“Star-crossed” is such a provocative notion that it’s no wonder the term has been readily absorbed into our lexicon. Astrology captivates. But as Cassius points out in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Fate and chance play an undeniable role in the plot of “Romeo and Juliet,” but the motor of the tragedy is the historical hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets. Shakespeare never bothers to explain the origins of this conflict. The enmity between these noble clans is simply a fact of life, as seemingly intractable as the hostilities in our time that keep leaving innocent blood on the hands of fellow citizens.
“West Side Story,” the greatest work of art derived from “Romeo and Juliet,” understands the role societal division plays in the story. The idea for the musical came from Jerome Robbins, the show’s director and choreographer, who shared his idea for a “Lower East Side Story” with composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents.
As Laurents recalled in his memoir “Original Story”: “Jerry had approached Lenny and me about writing a musical based on a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and the Montagues would be Catholic, Juliet and the Capulets Jewish; and the action would occur on the Lower East Side during Easter-Passover.”
The notion of relocating the musical to the West Side and moving from a religious conflict to a racial one was born at the Beverly Hills Hotel, of all places. Laurents and Bernstein were lounging by the pool when a Los Angeles Times headline about Chicano gangs caught their attention. Laurents thought it would make sense for a New York creative team to think locally, so the rival gangs became Puerto Rican and white.
The societal context for “West Side Story” was central to the musical because, like “Romeo and Juliet,” the tragedy is not a private affair that belongs exclusively to the lovers and their families. The loss, or what might better be described as the grievous sense of waste, is profoundly communal.
When Romeo, after secretly marrying Juliet, encounters truculent Tybalt, he tells him, “I do protest I never injured thee,/But love thee better than thou canst devise,/Till thou shall know the reason of my love.” Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, still furious that Romeo had the audacity to sneak his way into the Capulet ball, is spoiling for a fight. But love has given Romeo a new lens through which to view the world. His enemy has become family.
Unfortunately, Romeo is not at liberty to share the news, and Tybalt’s temper won’t be placated. The charitable vision that love makes possible confronts snarling reality as Mercutio, Romeo’s friend, picks up Tybalt’s challenge and is slain as a result of Romeo’s clumsy intervention.
In the impressive National Theatre film, stylishly directed by Simon Godwin and fluidly adapted by Emily Burns, Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade) and Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) are themselves amorously linked. Before the fatal duel that will leave Tybalt and Mercutio dead and Romeo banished, these friends steal their own secret kiss.
Josh O’Connor (slouched dreamily in much the same way as his Prince Charles on “The Crown”) and Jessie Buckley (passionate and pert in equal measure) play the lovers in a film that was shot on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage over 17 days during the pandemic. The lyrical result is the smoothest theater-film hybrid yet achieved since COVID-19 forced theaters to close.
In keeping with contemporary trends, the production avoids simplistically racializing the societal division. The leads are white but the Prince (played by the supplest of Shakespearean actors, Adrian Lester) is Black, and both family camps are supported by a multicultural cast.
In the Public Theater’s audio play version (copresented with WNYC Studios), Spanish and English are spoken by both the Montagues and the Capulets. The war isn’t between white and brown cultures but two factions that, true to Shakespeare, can’t even be neatly categorized by birth. Mercutio, for instance, isn’t a Montague, though he stands ready to defend Romeo’s honor (when not ribbing his lovesick buddy).
Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is a vivacious, incisive Julieta and Juan Castano an endearingly ardent Romeo in a production directed by Saheem Ali that might have benefited from bolder story editing. (The adaptation by Ali and Ricardo Pérez González is based on the Spanish translation by Alfredo Michel Modenessi.) Unlike the National production, which visually condenses the plot (and skimps on the families’ too-easy reconciliation at the end), “Romeo y Julieta” is a strictly aural experience. (I viewed the work on YouTube so that I could read along with the simultaneous translation.) The voices and accompanying urban soundscape, though at times sacrificing subtlety for vibrancy, lend a modern gloss to a Shakespeare presentation designed to widen the play’s cultural embrace.
I had to laugh that the word that caused me to pause the recording and consult a dictionary was the English word “portly,” used by Capulet to describe Romeo not as stout but as well-mannered. “Romeo y Julieta” takes the liberty of conflating the roles of Lady Capulet and her husband into one character (played by Florencia Lozano) but leaves an adjective that might create a false image in the minds of listeners unfamiliar with its etymology. (A Spanish substitute for this Elizabethan antiquity would have caused less confusion.)
Bu the only reason I stumbled on the vocabulary was because this bilingual rendition heightened my awareness of the text. Shakespeare remunerates close attention, and this polyglot approach made me hear the richness of the language anew.
As a general rule, however, “Romeo and Juliet” doesn’t need scrupulous script fidelity for the potency of the story to come through. The prologue promises “two hours’ traffic of our stage,” though modern productions that don’t take a brisk hand with the scissors always need more time. The Public Theater production runs 2 hours, 23 minutes, while the National Theatre film is a tight 1 hour, 40 minutes. Less turns out to be a good deal more in this comparison of unequals.
The tragic intensity of Godwin’s production, which captures the poetic quality of the play in the cinematic flow of the staging, renews the sorrowful tale, much as Ivo van Hove’s kinetic Broadway revival of “West Side Story” revived the musical’s pathos last year. Purists were offended by the way van Hove truncated the show and aggressively deployed video, but the heartrending poignancy of Tony and Maria’s love was born again in a production that set the action in a modern urban microcosm, a melting pot where animosities are always on boil.
Steven Spielberg’s movie version of “West Side Story” (with a screenplay by Tony Kushner) is finally coming out in December, and “R#J,” a film pitched to the Instagram and Spotify generation, was shown at Sundance this year. If Shakespeare’s tale and its offshoots seem to be everywhere at the moment, it may be because, in a world riven by inequities and grudges, the story of these young lovers helps us see the gentler, kinder and more sensual lives we could be living.