23rd April 2016. Four hundred years after the death of William Shakespeare. If you were to accost people in the street and ask them to name one of his plays, it’s likely they’d say ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ They’d probably be able to quote some of the lines too, especially those from the famous balcony scene.
'But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.'
'What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;'
The tale of the young, star-crossed lovers is one of the most popular and most performed of Shakespeare’s plays, its theme of doomed romance between Romeo and Juliet, their love forbidden by the enmity of their warring families in 16th century Verona, notably striking a cord with contemporary teenagers - not a demographic group that are necessarily expected to be fans of the works of England’s national playwright.
The first version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that I saw, when I was about ten, was not a stage production, but Franco Zeffirelli’s film – so beautifully shot, and so well-acted that I was completely enthralled by the story unfolding on the silver screen, and if I didn’t ‘get’ every single bit of the bard’s dialogue, I didn’t notice. Years later, watching a live production by the Oxford Stage Company, I was similarly enthralled and caught up in the story enacted on the stage. I remember gasping in horror when Tybalt killed Mercutio – in this particular production by breaking his neck – terrifying when you are sitting in the stalls.
'A plague on both your houses.'
Romeo and Juliet has been turned into a musical, 'West Side Story,' in which the rival Capulet and Montague families become the rival New York gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, while in Baz Lurhmann’s film, 'Romeo + Juliet,' guns take the place of swords to an MTV soundtrack.
There are ‘Romeo and Juliet’ operas and ballets.
The play has even inspired a Science Fiction TV drama, ‘Star Crossed,’ in which a human girl has a forbidden romance with an alien boy.
And it’s not only in England that the play has caught the imagination. It’s a surreal experience to visit ‘Juliet’s House’ in Verona and see tourists from all over the world – Japanese, American, French – writing letters to the fictional heroine and posting them in the letter box provided.
Much has changed in the last four hundred years, but for theatre audiences, the tragic love story between Romeo and Juliet is timeless.