When And Where And How

"When and where and how we met, we woo'd and made exchange of vow I'll tell thee as we pass…"

Romeo And Juliet, II.3


Much is being said about RMTC Artistic Director Steven Schipper's decision to set his Romeo and Juliet in modern day Jerusalem, and the extent to which that decision does and does not affect the action and the text of Shakespeare's play.


Some seem to feel that this production should have taken further steps to modernize the play, including a suggestion that, in place of Friar John failing to hand-deliver a letter to Romeo in Mantua, a more compelling choice would have been to have Friar Laurence's e-mail lost in Romeo's spam filter.  (This particular idea came from someone who further posited that had the actors been asked to deliver Shakespeare's "antiquated" text while "waddling" about in Elizabethan dress, the audience would likely have had a more difficult time following the action.  I, and anyone who has seen SIR's Stripped-Down Romeo & Juliet can confirm that this presumption is simply asinine.)


Some people seem to think that the real life tension and violence of the real life Israeli-Palestinian/Middle Eastern Jewish-Muslim conflict should have somehow been reflected more in this telling of the story, including a suggestion that Friar Laurence be represented as a Red Cross/Doctors Without Borders triage medic.


Considerations such as these regularly come into play whenever SIR prepares to mount a new Shakespearean production.  In its entire history, Stripped-Down Romeo & Juliet is the only Shakespeare play that SIR has set in the Elizabethan era.  Alternative settings have included The War of the Roses, the Restoration Era, America's Wild Western Frontier, the Roaring Twenties, Fellini's mid-20th Century Italy, a South American banana republic, and modern-day Transcona.


As has been asserted in the case of RMTC's current production, each of the above location changes has been made in an effort to contextualize Shakespeare's work in such a way that it can be a fresh experience for the audience, and to help underline the timelessness of his characters, their behavior, and their circumstances.  Each choice (despite Shakespeare's unequaled capacity for contemporary relevance) presents a number of challenges in dealing with certain anachronistic references and societal constructs, and each choice ends up walking a fine line between being a distraction from Shakespeare's original intention,  and providing additional immediacy and resonance.


As in all things artistic, the final analysis can only be subjective and, to a large extent, depends on the preconceptions and personal experience of each individual audience member. 


Speaking for myself, I think I would rather see a production that aims to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet based in the city of Jerusalem than a production that somehow tries to tell a story about the city of Jerusalem, based on Romeo and Juliet.


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