Olde English Invasion

Romeo & Juliet and Looking for Richard rethink Shakespeare

A few weeks ago, I saw a preview for William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. A woman in the row behind me remarked, "He must be turning over in his grave." Shakespeare, she meant.

Well, why not? Turning over in one's grave is part of what Romeo & Juliet is all about. It's impossible to say whether Shakespeare might approve of this new, 20th-century, Floridian-dress action-movie version from Australian director Baz Luhrmann, but the film has, at least, as much right to the title prefix William Shakespeare's as Franco Zeffirelli's Renaissance-schmaltz version of 1968. Maybe more.

It's even harder to say what Shakespeare would make of Looking for Richard, a free-wheeling documentary dissection of Richard III which marks Al Pacino's debut as a film director. Whatever Shakespeare did think about them, he would at least have to admit that they hold the screen as well as his plays hold the stage.

What both films share, along with considerable value as entertainment, is an attempt to develop an approach to Shakespearean drama that is purely and unapologetically American, not a Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts-spawned inferiority complex. Though Luhrmann's an Aussie, both his film and Looking for Richard are about American pop culture looking for Will.

Luhrmann's R&J takes place in "Verona Beach," a sensuously decayed Florida/Gulf Coast-type town seething with pointless discord between the Montagues and Capulets. Here the feuding clans and their sympathizers include Italians, Latinos, Anglos, blacks and Wasps, all of them separated less by these distinctions than by what's in a name.

It has been said that Shakespeare populated the world with Englishmen; Luhrmann, in turn, makes Shakespeare's suspiciously English versions of Italian nobles and street youths and servants into American archetypes. The adaptation (by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce) sticks to Shakespeare's words but mangles and tosses aside the iambic pentameter before the actors ever get to it.

Thus John Leguizamo spits Tybalt's lines out between clenched teeth--"Romyo, dow awrt a villin." Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) goes to the masque in drag, and his "Queen Mab" speech refers to a hallucinogenic he is offering Romeo. Paul Sorvino's elder Capulet is an overgrown-baby Godfather, his wife (Diane Venora) is a Southern belle, the Montagues (Brian Dennehy and Christina Pickles) are vaguely nouveau riche, Paris (Paul Rudd) is a rich bachelor of the JFK Jr. stripe and the Apothecary (M. Emmet Walsh) is a grizzled clerk at a pool hall. The cast does include two Brits, Pete Postlethwaite as "Father" Laurence and that delightful dialect specialist Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse, but the former uses generic diction, the latter a Cuban accent.

With this jumble of races, ethnicities and classes, Luhrmann makes his first thematic point: Those divisions, which so ravage our society, are just an idiotic variation on what's in a name. We'd be hard-pressed to find anything that provocative in the quaint, Ren Faireish, tights-and-doublets Veronas we're offered so often on the stage.

On an intellectual level, of course, this point wouldn't seem provocative at all, but thin and obvious. That American cities are hotbeds of meaningless enmity and violence doesn't require a 400-year-old text to elucidate. But as Robertson Davies pointed out, Shakespeare's art isn't about the intellect, it's about the heart and the gut. Luhrmann's "Verona Beach" makes us feel the real theme of the play--the desperation of honest love in a world of deadly, mindless conflict--in a way that few modern productions have.

Most so-called "traditional" productions of R&J, onstage or in film, push a fairy-tale atmosphere. This approach may have stemmed, initially, from the one purely mythic conceit that Shakespeare asks us to accept: love at first sight. Once the two protagonists meet, they fall in pure, zealous love, and know each other to the bottom of their souls.

Most directors seem to feel that the setting of the play should reflect this perfection. But there's nothing at all quaint about Shakespeare's Verona--it's a tough town. Accordingly, Luhrmann stages the "civil brawl" which opens the story as a gunfight out of a spaghetti Western, with Montague and Capulet thugs blazing away at each other with automatic weapons at a gas station.

The Prince (Vondie Curtis-Hall) arrives in a swarm of police helicopters to break it up, and a TV news anchor intones the words of the chorus--"Two houses, both alike in dignity . . ."--in front of a graphic reading "MONTAGUE. CAPULET. THE FEUD CONTINUES."

And so on. This borders on the gimmicky, to be sure, and at times it slips over that border. It wasn't necessary, for instance, to give the guns brand names like "Sword 9mm" or "Dagger" to explain why the boys don't call them guns, and there are times when the Shakespearean in-jokes, cute though some are, get a bit distracting.

Overall, Luhrmann's chaotic, headlong, try-anything-once style--similar to that of his previous feature, the frothy comedy Strictly Ballroom--seems amazingly right for this material. What's most remarkable about this pop free-for-all approach is that it doesn't diminish the power of the love story at all. In traditional stagings (and certainly in West Side Story), the lovers often get lost in the midst of more vivid secondary characters like Mercutio or the Nurse, because the title roles are seen less as characters and more as vehicles for the soaring love poetry.

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