Essay on Love Story of Romeo and Juliet
Number of words: 3279
The critically acclaimed and dramatic love story of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ written by William Shakespeare in 1594 has flooded both the theatrical and cinematic domain over the last two centuries. The play centres on two star crossed lovers and the conflict of the feuding families which results in the lovers meeting a bitter end. Rasta Thomas Dance Company created an ambitious ballet adaptation of Romeo and Juliet with an eclectic mix of 21st century songs and highly technical projections. Directors, Rasta Thomas and Adrienne Canterna, in an attempt to actualise a classic text, notably altered the medium, theatrical genre and temporal context of the play. However, in doing so, created a pastiche of styles that neither embodied the ‘original’ source, despite Canterna’s desire to stay faithful to Shakespeare’s text, nor reinvented itself as a new and innovative adaptation. The approach failed to integrate any of the key themes or characterisations present in Romeo and Juliet and resulted in a one dimensional presentation of this famous play. Hoping to reimagine Romeo and Juliet through the eyes of the heart struck teenagers and appeal to a younger audience, Rasta Dance Company centre their production on the lovers’ “rebellion; their passion; and their irrationality” (Canterna 2015).However, in my opinion they were unable to embrace the modernity or traditional value of the play. Rather, they superimposed a layer of pop culture onto Shakespeare leaving the audience feeling the overpowering ascetics acted as a caricature of our modern society. My argument analyses the credibility of the performance in regards to the original source and the implications of changing the medium, genre and time period.
Their mode of engagement with the source material meant that in shifting from script to theatre production, they also altered the medium of performance from a conventional play to a dance piece. Shakespeare’s works were always intended for performance, so it is imperative to draw comparisons from the original performance conditions in relation to Thomas’ approach. Unable to proceed without pre-conceived notions of the content and style of Romeo and Juliet, Canterna claims that her intentions were to never alter Shakespeare text as it is “perfect in every way” (Canterna 2015). The first performance of Romeo and Juliet in 1597 centred on the language above the visual aesthetics. There was “no scenery and a minimum of props allowed the action to move swiftly and the audience to focus on the richly evocative language” (RSC 2005).
This draws a likeness to ballet performances, as the lack of scenery and props allow the focus to remain solely on the movements. These movements represent the language that is at the centre of the Elizabethan performances. In this sense, it would follow that the change in medium could lend itself well for a ballet version of Romeo and Juliet, however, the Rasta Dance Company were unable to achieve this so effortlessly. Thomas adapted the play into a ballet so it becomes “Shakespeare seen through music and dance interpreted in body language” (Canterna 2015). The intention of Rasta Thomas was to remain true to Shakespeare’s text in the form of choreographed movements and utilised music and recorded sound “as a vital tool to understanding”(Canterna 2015).When adapting written works into movement based pieces it is possible to express complex ideas and narratives solely through the use of the body and combine the ”moved and the written into an interdisciplinary parlance”(Foster 1995:15). The conventions of ballet allow for “repeated movements or positioning of the body that can operate as visual motifs comparable in their linking effects to the identification of a character” (Sanders 2013:1875). However, in this adaptation the choreography of the piece was accompanied by projections including the prologue text and character introductions. This use of projection did not utilise the power of ballet to verbalise the text through dance.
During the third scene, the stage manager interrupted the performance due to a technical fault and restarted the show with the accompanying projection. As each character entered the stage and performed a solo routine, their respective character name was projected behind them. As the two rival groups appeared on stage, the projection highlighted which belonged to the ‘Montagues’ and the ‘Capulets’. These visual prompts would certainly have benefitted those new to Shakespeare. However, prior to the interruption the audience were able to speculate for themselves the corresponding characters. Witnessing the performance for the second time reinforced the idea that the choreography lacked the essential narrative and couldn’t stand alone without the projection. This highlighted the directors’ lack of confidence in the choreography to convey this tragic love story. The technical fault raised an important question, if they had continued the performance without the projection, would the audience have perceived the story in the same manner? The projections added clarity but simultaneously took away from the physicalized speech and outstanding choreography. Ballet productions have the potential to physicalize the text and sequence of events and typically do not include any language or written text. Conventionally, Ballet is unrestricted by the “tyranny of words” (Hunter 2005:116) and through the use of physicality and body movements aims to “offer the same kind of awareness of the medium that spoken language literacy provides’’ (Williams 2006:473).It is evident that the company felt it was necessary to include the text and clearly narrate the story visually through projection. I personally feel the projection overshadowed the dancing and underestimated the audience’s ability to appreciate the narrative solely through dance.
Canterna did successfully establish the two different households through the use of dance. There was a clear difference between the dancing styles of the Capulets and Montagues. The Capulets were acrobatic and fluid whereas the Montagues appeared more intimidating and firm. Rasta Dance Company initially established them as rivals but ultimately never went beyond this. The leitmotifs that they incorporated throughout the piece became predictable and repetitive, making the differentiations too simplistic for the audience. Tybalt for example, had a signature movement in which he would brush his arms in a menacing style consistently when he appeared on stage. The movement was subsequently repeated during his death scene but was performed with such literality it over simplified his death and the scene lost much of its tragic value. The common implication of adapting a Shakespearian text, and which this adaptation overlooked, is that “literature will always have axiomatic superiority over an adaptation of its seniority as an art form” (Hutcheon 2012:4), especially the works of Shakespeare. Many have a basic understanding of the storyline of Romeo and Juliet, therefore, the choreography could have been less prescriptive, allowing the audience to experience something new from a familiar story.
Similarly, the approach to Mercutio’s character also displayed repetitive character traits in which Jarvis McKinley, playing the role of Mercutio, exaggerated his homosexuality. He often flicked his imaginary hair like an adolescent school girl and became a humorous character. Therefore, again the death scene became unintentionally comical. The repetitive and stereotypical movements were evidently inspired by the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. In Luhrmann’s film adaptation, Harold Perrineau conveyed Mercutio’s character in an extremely camp and vivacious manner. McKinley flounced across the stage in glittery harlequin shorts akin to the aforementioned portrayal. The performance also featured the notable soundtrack ‘Kissing You’ by Des’ree, most commonly associated with the scene in Luhrmann’s film, where Romeo and Juliet are either side of a fish tank gazing at each other. Bearing multiple concepts from other adaptations and exaggerated characterisations, this adaptation did not provide a new perspective on Mercutio’s character or the play as a whole.
In this intermedial adaptation, Rasta Dance Company removed multiple characters from the storyline including the prominent role of the parents whom Canterna views as ‘incidental’. She states “the narrative is normally developed through the context of the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets, channelled through the perspective of the parents. But I wanted to tell it through the teenager’s eyes, because the story concerns their bold choices.” (Canterna 2015). Her intentions for this adaptation are clear in making Romeo and Juliet accessible for a younger audience and “telling it, the teenager’s way” (Watts 2015). In choosing to omit the central characters of Romeo and Juliet, it meant that Canterna replaced the parents with “Friar Laurence and the nurse as paternal and maternal figures” (Canterna 2015). However, the implications of this choice meant that the storyline was incongruous with the characters. Neither characters were old enough to hold any authority over Romeo and Juliet due to casting young dancers for the roles. The main obstacle for the lovers is presented through the parental figures and without this conflict, the plotline lacks severity and meaning. The audience are not presented with a convincing reason for why they can’t be united or the consequences of their ‘forbidden’ love. The source centres on the warring households and the significant power of the family influence over their offspring. Without the rising hostility building between the two families, the adaptation was unable to build tension between the two lovers in their desire to be together.
Rasta Dance Company also created an intergeneric adaptation as they shifted towards a more comedic approach to a Shakespearian tragedy. Traditionally in Shakespeare’s tragedies ‘both comic and poetic elements prevent the plot from settling into melancholy: while one tradition pulses with the rhythms of ongoing life, the other resonates with lyricism and wit’ (Levenson 1987:6). This production was ambitious in creating humorous scenes that became a parody of teenage love. They intended to reach the younger generation by incorporating scenes such as, male actors sexually undressing to the pop hit ‘express yourself’. Adaptation has the ability to become a product of society where work is domesticated to meet ‘the individual requirements of the target culture’ (Silvia 2013:9) providing them with a new creation whilst honouring the “pre-existing source” (Laera 2014:77). Hutcheon likens the adapting process to “Darwin’s theory of evolution, where generic adaptation is presented as the biological process by which something is fitted to a given environment” (Hutcheon 2012:31). Canterna’s intention was to ‘provide a metaphor for engaging young people with a narrative they might not otherwise experience” (Canterna 2015) through incorporating current elements to her piece. However, the light hearted and quirky atmosphere almost became parodic of Romeo and Juliet as they produced a Shakespearian tragedy “mixed with party tunes, with an iPod shuffle soundtrack jumping from LMFAO to Vivaldi to The Police” (Witship 2015). Comic scenes were intermixed with serious and theatrical duets which resulted in the latter scenes being viewed in the same light and the tragic elements were not fully appreciated. They hoped that by combining comic and tragic elements, the performance would appeal to the masses. However, due to the pastiche of theatrical styles, as an audience member, I was unable to connect or engage with the emotional relevance of the final scenes. This shift from tragedy to comedy occurs throughout the performance without any flow or relation, for example Romeo and Juliet’s passionate and evocative love scene is followed by an upbeat and humorous interruption from Paris, accompanied by a Bruno Mars pop song.
Canterna made Paris a more prominent character in the hope to convey “the conflicts that ensure and the choices [Juliet] makes because of this engagement that she has no control over” (Canterna 2015). By making Paris an integral part of her production, Canterna hoped he would emphasis Juliet’s “feeling of being trapped” as she has hopelessly fallen in love with another man. By enlarging his role in the performance, the audience are meant to feel more sympathy for the severity of Juliet’s circumstances. However, the style in which Paris is portrayed does not correspond with Canterna’s concept and didn’t translate into performance; his character was not disliked and didn’t convey the consequences of Juliet’s forced marriage. Instead, Paris provided humour and comedy acting as an archetypal caricature. In one particular scene, he cavorts across the stage singing with a microphone in his hand performing a karaoke style version of ‘Every breath you take’. In an attempt to familiarise Shakespeare to our current society, they invited comedy and satire to their scenes and their intention for a cathartic atmosphere during the death scenes were unintentionally humorous.
This adaptation was transported into a contemporary setting in order to appeal to modern day audience. Rasta Dance Company tailored the music and aesthetics of their piece to today’s cultural society by including pop songs from artists such as Jay Z and Katy Perry. In an attempt to actualise Romeo and Juliet for the younger target audience, the Elizabethan costumes were exchanged for an eclectic mix of modern designs; one scene witnessed the male actors wearing harlequin shorts and avant-garde masks. Juliet wore a silk pale pink dress with a hooped bottom resembling her youth and the nurse wore a corseted white dress, which could be suggestive of her purity (Watts 2015). The costuming was not specifically designed to suit to the time period of the music and blend together to create one artistic vision.
The modernising of the costume was also accompanied by modern music from artists such as Usher and Lady Gaga. Not only did this production feature modern music choices, but it also included classical music scores from fifth symphony Vivaldi and Prokofiev. Canterna explains her intentions for the juxtaposing music as she claims it fits the “intention of telling the story from the perspective of two teenagers’. She states; “it needs a different musical soundscape to capture their emotions because we express things louder now; teenagers have more freedom and they’re allowed to be more radical” (Canterna 2015). In this sense, Canterna is hoping to represent the interiority through music and liken it to their un-verbalised speech. Accompanying the range of contemporary songs, this production included various background designs through the use of projection. Images of cartoon lipsticks, paparazzi cameras and funfair roller-coaster silhouettes were projected onto the screen behind the dancers; the designs were contemporary and domesticated Romeo and Juliet for our current society.
However, although the contemporary time period translated well aesthetically, the narrative remained rooted in the past. This adaptation failed to actualise the piece in its entirety and therefore, became illogical. The modern scene projections and pop music were incongruous with the central narrative of the play. Romeo and Juliet’s fate stems from whether Mantua, the messenger, will deliver a letter revealing Juliet’s false-death. If the performance had been reconstructed in its original time period, this concept would have still been appropriate and relevant. However, with the vast development of technology and communication in our current society, this notion subsequently becomes outdated. Secondly, the form in which Romeo and Juliet both commit suicide by poison and a dagger is tailored for an Elizabethan time period not the 21st century.
Another outdated concept of the narrative is the notion of an arranged marriage. It is uncommon for a woman in our current British culture, outside of Muslim practice, to be subjected to marrying without consent. This is a central part of the story of Romeo and Juliet but was not altered to suit the new time period of the production. Canterna clearly stated her aim to remain loyal to Shakespeare’s text but without altering the plot to match the aesthetics, the production becomes incongruous. It became a production that reconstructed the historical narrative but not the historical time period.
In my opinion, this intertemporal adaptation did not fully portray the shift in the historical context of the source. The music choices were of such a stark contrast to one another, switching radically between modern and classical without any flow or reason. Each scene and music track ended suddenly with a blackout. Without changing the plot or cultural context, the play remained rooted in history whilst the aesthetics and music choices were thrust into the 21st century.
In conclusion, the adaptation did not fully consider the implications of the shift in genre, medium or time. The performance lost much of its value, becoming so haphazard in its style; it did not wholly embrace the modernity of the production as the pop songs were intertwined with old-fashioned music. This production became a hybrid of ideas; by taking the iconic elements of successful adaptations in homage to a Shakespearian tragedy whilst simultaneously attempting to modernise for a contemporary audience. As an audience member, I felt that it didn’t stand alone as an innovative creation but equally didn’t resonate the essence of the iconic love story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
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