Some time within the last 14 days, I subjected myself to three versions of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet playing in NYC. "Subjected?" you ask, well dear reader, each of them was perhaps more horrifying than the previous, leading me to ask if I wasn't an unwitting participant in some Shakespeare-meets-Halloween project. However in the name of scientific research I've come back with some results.
The versions in question are...
1) a Broadway update (the first in over four decades) starring Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom as the infamous lovers from Verona.
2) a new film (written by Julian Fellowes) starring Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet and Damian Lewis as her dad
3) an off-Broadway version with Elizabeth Olsen and newcomer Julian Cihi as the title characters.
Both theater versions feature anachronisms and are set in unspecified times, the film version inversely has a time-appropriate setting yet somehow it doesn't feel like the most old fashioned of them.
The Best and Worst of each pair after the jump...
The three productions are equally uneven with all of them sharing one particular tragedy in common: there is absolutely no chemistry between the lovers. Can it be that the love between Romeo and Juliet is no longer relevant? In the age of internet insta-dating, high divorce rates, unwanted/unplanned teen pregnancy et al. has their love story become too sincere, or perhaps too unbelievable to be presented without irony, unnecessary aesthetic flourishes or extreme, almost prudish, reverence?
The work itself has never been the Bard's best, despite moments of brilliance and endless quotability. Romeo & Juliet's tragic nature doesn't hold a candle to Macbeth, King Lear or Hamlet for that matter and its romance seems hammy when compared to the airy swooniness of A Midsummer's Night Dream or Much Ado About Nothing. Still, that doesn't help explain why three completely different new versions all happened to be mediocre. Originally I planned to rate them in order of how many times Shakespeare would roll in his grave for each of them, but even I can't be that snarky, so without further ado, I've come up with my own best/worst ofs.
Believe you me, this wasn't an easy choice to make, basically because all the Romeos are terrible. I've decided to be lenient and give the slight edge to Douglas Booth from the film version. Booth looks the part and is the only one who could conceivably drive teenagers into R.Patz-like obsession. That he is introduced shirtless and sculpting Rosaline helped a lot too.
Orlando Bloom's Romeo inspires more snickers than swoons. Not only is he too old for the part, he also seems to have been given the absolute worst directions in his entire production (When in doubt remove your shirt! Act like Spider-Man during the balcony scene! Mumble through your lines! Steal Juliet's thunder with your biceps!)
Few people can do what Condola Rashad does onstage. Period. Earlier this year she broke a million hearts with her small part in The Trip to Bountiful opposite Cicely Tyson in which she delivered one of the most touching performances I've ever seen and her Juliet is the only character in her production who seems to be doing the right thing. From the moment she appears onstage, you can't take your eyes off of her. She's vibrant, her Juliet's life full of promise, and such a generous actress that she even tries to fool us into believing Bloom's Romeo makes any kind of sense. May she continue bringing her magic to the stage for decades to come!
It pains my heart to say that Elizabeth Olsen's Juliet had me wishing she'd get to that dagger within her first two scenes. It might not be her fault entirely, because the director seems to have a pretty twisted vision of why these two teenagers fall in love, but her Juliet is shrill, prone to way too much hysteria and just plain obnoxious. She's what one would imagine the Olsen twins would be when being wooed. She never seems to be interested in Romeo's love, but only in why can't she have what she wants
If there is one thing these versions managed to prove though, was that maybe we have been reading this play the wrong way and Romeo and Juliet aren't the principal characters. I was surprised to find that in all of them, it was the supporting players who displayed new layers I'd never observed in other versions...
Best Mercutio: T.R. Knight's faithful sidekick in the Off-Broadway version was a combination of Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York, Billy Zane in Titanic and Heath Ledger's The Joker. Take that as you will! But the truth is that his performance was always interesting to watch, even as it veered into parody. Not so curiously his death scene was the only time Cihi made an emotional impact as Romeo, his wail upon realizing his friend had died was absolutely chilling. Worst Mercutio: Christian Camargo (Broadway)
Best Friar: Watching the Off-Broadway version I kept thinking how kind, warm and generous the Friar looked and all I wanted was to be his friend. There was also something very familiar about his voice...and then it struck me! It’s Daniel Davis - Niles from The Nanny! That alone immediately won him this vote. Worst Friar: Paul Giamatti (Film Version)
Best Nurse: Even if Daphne Rubin Vega was essentially doing Sofia Vergara-redux in the Off-Broadway version, her Nurse was not only interesting because of the sociopolitical implications of her Spanglish delivery, but because she finally made us realize just how important this character is to Juliet. She is truly her mother, the woman who has spent every single minute of her life looking after her. Discovering Juliet faux-dead on her wedding day was the most heartbreaking moment in any of the three productions. Worst Nurse: Lesley Manville (Film Version)
Worst Tybalt: In the film version Ed Westwick plays Tybalt as Chuck Bass-doing-Shakespeare because he lost a wager. There is not a single moment in his performance that doesn’t scream Gossip Girl, from the walk, to the conspiratory eyes, to the hiss...it made me wish Leighton Meester would show up and save the day in an Audrey Hepburn costume! Best Tybalt: Don Mucciacito (Off-Broadway)
So there you have it dear readers, a plague on all their houses! However on the upside, after watching the very last version, I ran home to watch Shakespeare in Love and cleanse my palate. Say what you will about that film, the chemistry between Gwynnie and Joe Fiennes is astonishing.
What's your favorite Romeo & Juliet? What's your capacity for Shakespeare adaptations like these days: keep 'em coming, a moratorium, or somewhere in the middle?