From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents̓ strife.
“Romeo and Juliet”, William Shakespeare
My introduction to Shakespeare came at eight or nine years old when I was flipping through TV channels and found the Franco Zeffirelli movie version of “Romeo and Juliet.” It is a pretty fantastic way to fall in love with the Bard. Over the next few years I read the play in middle school, watched Baz Luhrman’s 1996 version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and went to see “West Side Story” at the theater. My senior year of college I studied at Oxford for three weeks and was able to watch Shakespeare plays every night for three weeks. During that time I watched at least two adaptations of “Romeo and Juliet” (and four of “Hamlet”!). I never get tired of new versions of Shakespeare, especially “Romeo and Juliet.” It is an enduring tale of young love, tragedy and innocence lost and it speaks to me in a different way each time that I see it.
Yesterday I went with a group of friends to see “The Last Goodbye,” the latest incarnation of “Romeo and Juliet,” at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. The play is set to the music of Jeff Buckley and involves a combination of verse, song, and guitar riffs. Going to the theater always makes me feel like a full-blown adult – it is probably the cost of the tickets and the fact that the majority of theater audiences are over fifty years old. This version of “Romeo and Juliet” really made me feel old because I found myself shocked at the graphic, oh-la-la, parts of the performance. Especially the marriage consummation scene.
I’ve never been a fan of Romeo because he is humorless, impulsive, childish, and fickle. What did Juliet (who is one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare characters, probably because she gets all the best lines in the play) see in the immature, brooding boy? “The Last Goodbye” changed my mind about him. Romeo just needed to belt out some music, and it didn’t hurt that the actor in this version looked like Ryan Phillipe.
“The Last Goodbye” is not set in a specific time period which highlights the timelessness of the story. The costumes are a mixture of leather jackets, hoodies, and renaissance-inspired dresses. Mercutio, always a scene-stealer in productions of this play, wears a glamorous, over-the-top fur coat (I hope it is a fake) in the party scene and it attracts the attention of the viewer over and over. The scenery is like a medieval castle, and my vertigo kicked in a few times as I watched the actors gracefully maneuver the towers and higher portions of the walls. Many times I thought they would fall off of the stage and it made me nervous. I also worried that someone was going to get hurt in the sword-fighting scenes – they are spectacular and a highlight of the production. The lighting is key in contributing to the mood of the music in the scenes. At certain points it feels like a rock concert, and at other points it feels like you are in a church.
I was waiting for the Buckley classic “Hallelujah,” and it does not disappoint when the song arrives in the final scene. It is a powerful way to end the play, and I noticed quite a few people around me wiping tears. Throughout the play I discovered poetic, soulful songs by Buckley that I had never heard before like “All Flowers in Time” and “The Last Goodbye.” Buckley had a pure voice, and the actors in this production honor his memory and voice beautifully.
Back to the Zeffirelli film….apparently the actors playing Romeo and Juliet dated in real life. Check out this youtube video of them doing an interview. It’s adorable and disturbing at the same time — kind of like “Romeo and Juliet.”