There is a new Romeo and Juliet on the block. It was meant to be a stage production by London’s National Theatre but the pandemic scuttled those plans (because of course it did). Rather than abandon it altogether, the creators decided to film it as a movie, but one that avoids the trap of merely filming a staged play and instead presents a beautiful rendition while also crafting a love letter to theater. It stars Jessie Buckley as Juliet, Josh O’Connor as Romeo.
In her review of the new version, NPR critic Linda Holmes asks the question, “What makes things last?” Holmes is not doing the snarky eye-roll thing of wondering aloud if we really need another staging of Romeo and Juliet. Instead, she asks a version of a question that has long fascinated me: Why do some stories persist? Why do we love hearing and telling and seeing and performing them over and over?
Many of the works of Shakespeare obviously fall onto this list, Romeo and Juliet included. But I am also thinking of stories that seem to get an update on the regular, such as the various misadventures—romantic and political—of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Marc Antony, or the various deeds—romantic, political, and religious (often all at once)—of Henry VIII and those who surrounded him, whether they be wives, advisors, enemies, or all of the above.
As I was watching this new Romeo and Juliet, my laptop propped on the counter while I cooked dinner, I found myself reciting along, with delight and pleasure much as I would sing along to a song. Perhaps there is something, then, not only to the story but the language and cadences that have walked pathways into my brain, something familiar and fun. I also notice that the more I read or hear or listen to a thing, the more I see and learn and understand about it. This occurrence, too, is a pleasure in the way that it tickles and massages my brain.
I also noticed unexpected choices, made by the company and the individuals, and these put me in mind of the fun of song covers. This Romeo and Juliet swaps the lines of Lady and Lord Capulet (Tamsin Greig and Lloyd Hutchison), which may not sound like much. But the gender transfer to a weak, silly father and a commanding matriarch dug something fresh out of the much-laundered character dynamics. Similarly, my strong memories of Leonardo DiCaprio’s devastated shriek, “I defy you stars!” made me startled by O’Connor’s shout of sudden rage. The same lines, presented in different contexts by different actors, take on different or nuanced meanings that scrape away the layers of expectations to uncover something heretofore unseen or unknown. Something engaging happens experiencing the familiar done in an unfamiliar way.
I also suspect that I, that we, have not finished learning all that Shakespeare has to teach us, both with his language and his archetypal stories and characters. Or perhaps we ourselves imbue them with something alchemical through revisiting them again and again, and that is why so many of them persist. Updating Shakespeare’s most effective plays tells us something about our past and something about our present, and then lays the foundation for the conversation the future will have back to us.
Buckley and O’Connor are both great in this production, with a solid cast and engaging production to back them. They make you root for these star-crossed lovers even as you know it’s futile. (Another repetition, and a “spoiler” made by the prologue that opens the show so not even Shakespearean audiences could claim surprise.)The show is streaming for free on PBS through May 21 and I urge anyone interested to watch it before it’s gone!