Eric Goldin | The Charm of ‘Romeo and Juliet’

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In the fall of 2018, I attended a production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” performed in the Black Box Theater at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center. Professor David Stears directed it. He’s an incredible acting teacher, and his Theater 141 class was one of the best college courses I’ve ever taken. He helped turn my atrocious acting into something halfway presentable. I learned many things about preparation, commitment, immersion, nuance and emotional connection that go into the makeup of strong, memorable characters. 

He taught me about the hard work, physical stamina and mental strength it takes to be a serious actor, and I gained great admiration for any thespian who dedicates their life to their craft. I have nothing but love and respect for David Stears. However, I didn’t enjoy this play.

I tried my best to get encapsulated in the performance, but I couldn’t understand what was going on. Halfway through the evening, just as my attention span was nearing depletion and after failing to convince myself that I was having fun, the guy sitting next to me (who seemed to be there at the behest of his girlfriend) sighed in boredom and glumly said, “When is this going to end?”

It had a cast of talented student actors who I’ve seen perform amazingly in other shows, but in this instance, their effort didn’t move me. Pulling off quality Shakespeare is a foreboding challenge. Shakespeare wrote stories of real human struggle and conflict that ordinary people could relate to and enjoy; however, he also shrouded his scripts with grandiose language and a thick layer of intellectualism that would appeal to the sensibilities of the highly educated and elite members of society. 

It’s challenging to not only understand the Shakespearean dialect but also get so immersed that you can watch an exchange among multiple characters who are speaking this way to each other and accept it without cringing. Dramatic and heart-wrenching moments in these plots can look ridiculous if not done flawlessly. It takes precise calculation to balance the grandiosity of Shakespeare’s plays with realism and believability. 

Reading a play written by Shakespeare is usually a tedious task, but watching it performed – when done well – can be one of the most enriching experiences for anybody in their lifetime.  

While plenty of Shakespearean productions have missed the mark and been torturous to sit through, there are a few absolute masterpieces so good they transcend the original printed work. My personal favorite is the 1968 spectacular film portrayal of the classic tragic love story “Romeo and Juliet.”

It stars Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey as the iconic titular characters. They had remarkable chemistry and were the perfect duo. When I think of what Romeo should look like, I imagine young Leonard Whiting. He had classically handsome features and radiated a charming aroma that was picturesque for the mold of the dreamy lover he plays. Olivia Hussey was stunningly beautiful with a sweet face that exuded youthfulness, innocence and naivety but could also display the intelligence, zeal and willpower of the character Juliet.

Whiting and Hussey delivered their lines with such crispness and elegance that it enhanced the graceful flow of the dialogue and made the most emotional and impacting scenes burst with life. But the most important thing was they masterfully were able to meld the poetry in the script with authenticity.

They gave just the right amount of allure to make every line memorable. Whiting and Hussey didn’t blandly utter the dialogue, but they also never overact and come across as cartoonish. They struck the right notes and hit each beat correctly. Their captivating interactions have such passionate intensity that the audience can feel the electricity between them. Every time they’re on screen, they have a magical spark.   

The balcony scene is the best example of the magnificent job Whiting and Hussey did with the base material. Whiting splendidly expressed the fierce infatuation Romeo has for Juliet, and Hussey vividly showcases the turmoil Juliet experiences as she ponders the unfairness of her situation. Hussey captured the range of emotions Juliet goes through – the internal struggle and pain she has while sadly lamenting her feelings about falling in love with a man who is from the hated enemy tribe and then the overwhelming joy she gets when she kisses Romeo at the climax of the scene.

One of the things that gave this version of “Romeo and Juliet” more legitimacy than previous adaptations was the fact that Whiting and Hussey were the right age to play the characters. People often forget that, in the story, Romeo is 16, and Juliet is only 13. Adult actors usually played them in professional theatrical shows, but the 1968 film version stayed faithful to the original work and had teenagers star in it.

In my opinion, aside from Laurence Olivier’s 1948 “Hamlet” and the 1953 version of “Julius Caesar” (starring Marlon Brando), no ensemble of actors did a better job with Shakespeare. 

I usually have a difficult time understanding the Shakespearean dialect, but in this movie, I never had any trouble figuring out what the characters were saying. I believe that when Shakespeare is performed fervently and with the right amount of genuineness, it doesn’t matter if the language is archaic or overly dramatic. A person can understand everything – the conflict, the romance, the violence, the despair, the humor, the euphoria – if they bear witness to a powerful Shakespearean performance.    

Besides the acting, there are little touches director Franco Zeffirelli and his production team added that make this film special. For example, when Romeo and Juliet meet at Capulet’s party and share their first kiss, a beautiful song called “What is a Youth” is performed in the background as entertainment for the guests. It wasn’t in Shakespeare’s original play, but it’s the perfect love melody to go along with this touching moment in the story. Short instrumental versions of this piece play sporadically throughout the rest of the film, always appearing at precisely the right moment for the most emotionally riveting effect.

Furthermore, the costumes are spectacular, and the scenery and cinematography are top-notch. It was filmed in Italy – which not only provides a splendid backdrop but is also the real setting that Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote the story. It’s a stunning, immaculate film that won two Oscars for cinematography and costume design. All the stars in the universe aligned perfectly in crafting this astonishing work of art.     

To me, Whiting and Hussey will always be Romeo and Juliet. They pulled off the greatest rendition of the most famous love story of all time. Every other version should get tossed aside quicker than Romeo forgot about Rosaline.

Eric Goldin is a Santa Clarita resident.        

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