I don’t know if I was any different than anyone else in class the first time we were “forced” to read Romeo and Juliet. The language was strange. The story felt too familiar – like I’d seen it a hundred times if I’d seen it once. And the idea that they needed to come up with some elaborate plan of faking death in order for the two lovers (who’d known each other about an hour before Romeo proposed to Juliet). It was just… too much.
But I didn’t hate it. I’m not sure I can fully remember how I felt about it. Just one of those things that you have to do in school. You read it, take a test or two on the material, and move on to the next classic. Occasionally they will lead you to someone becoming a favourite author (thank you Jack London for “To Build a Fire”). Sometimes you realize how much of a non-fan you are (Mr. Dickens, I’m looking at you).
Weirdly, it was the 1996 version of the play starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes where I think I started to understand the story. Whether it was the modern setting, the delivery of the lines… maybe just hearing the words rather than reading them. Or maybe I was just in a different mindset 4 years after I’d initially read the tale. Maybe I had more knowledge about the idea for the reason I thought I’d seen the story over and over… it was because everyone was using it as a basis to tell a certain kind of story.
And with watching, the nuances of the actors’ performances lend themselves to seeing how even if I didn’t catch every word, I knew what the characters were trying to convey. Those little pieces that are completely missing from a read through.
I probably haven’t seen that version of Romeo and Juliet in over a decade, at least. But the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta puts on the play for the month of February. Courtney and I had been threatening to go and see a play there (lived here how many years and never went, what’s wrong with us). So we finally made it this past weekend.
Have you ever had one of your favourite songs come on and for some reason, it has a slightly different context than it ever had before? Maybe you hear a group of lyrics for the first time or just are in a different moment in your life… and suddenly the song is different for you. That was this performance this weekend. It was the same play and yet little moments caught me by surprise.
- The dialogue of Juliet’s Nurse. Multiple times she stole the scene she was in just with the energy she had at the beginning of the play. Later when she has news about Romeo, Juliet calls her old, so she has fun at her expense. Previously I’d thought of the character as someone who toys with the two main characters, but in this, I truly felt the affection she had for Juliet to the point that she put aside her own grief for Tybalt’s death because Romeo was now Juliet’s husband.
- Mercutio is my favourite character in the play. The movie version is ever in my mind with every line of his dialogue, but in this performance, the role was further defined as someone who loves life, someone who loves Romeo, and someone who would defend his friends until the end. “A plague on both your houses.” resonates with me. The futility of the war between the families.
- I was struck by seeing the split of the Acts of the play. Romeo is the star of the first part with Juliet not appearing for a few scenes. It was enough where at the intermission my brain was thinking “wow, I thought Juliet was in more of this play.” Of course, the second half is Juliet’s time to shine. The split makes for an interesting compare/contrast that I hadn’t expected to see going into the play.
- Lastly, Paris and his death in the crypt. I’m not entirely sure I even knew that scene happened prior to Saturday night. So when he appeared, in grief, it adds a bit of weird context to the story. Here was a man who appeared to be fond of this girl he sought to marry. So much so that he asks that Romeo lay him beside her… perhaps he’s not the villain or idiot I’d often taken him for?
Overall it was a great night with the words of the Bard ringing in our ears. I look forward to visiting another of his timeless tales there in the future.
By the way, did you know that I was participating in a Kickstarter for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons focused on Love, Knights, and Enchanters? It is called Love’s Labour’s Liberated. The Kickstarter runs through the end of the month. If you are a fan of roleplaying games, give it a look!
John McGuire is the creator/author of the steampunk comic The Gilded Age. The Trade paperback collecting the first 4 issues is finally back from the printers! If you would like to purchase a copy, go here!
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