Romeo and Juliet: A Classic Tale Told Through Varied Art Forms
Updated: Nov 16, 2020
With its swooning lovers, feuding families, and dramatic deaths, Shakespeare’s timeless tale of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, has never ceased to capture audiences for centuries worldwide. Countless adaptations have been made of this classic story, but two of my very favorites are the 2013 screen version starring Hailee Steinfield and Douglas Booth, and Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words, a ballet adaption filmed by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, starring Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell as the principal dancers. Both adaptations have their strengths, and both are visually stunning.
The earlier of these two versions, and the one I saw first, was the adaptation directed by Carlo Carlie and released in 2013. In his sumptuous and visually gorgeous film, Carlie uses cinematography to create a film that resembles a Renaissance painting come to life in all its glory. The attention to detail is impeccable; the costumes are beautifully tailored to resemble clothes worn during the period in which the story is set, and the sweeping vistas of the beautiful Italian landscapes against the beautiful score by Abel Korzeniowski add luminousness, anchoring the audience in place and time.
The film does not deviate from Shakespeare’s tale but follows it quite faithfully, presenting an adaptation that remains traditional, relying on the audience's like of and familiarity with the story. It also retains much of the original dialogue from the play, which, when delivered with the youthful freshness of Steinfield and Booth, sounds anything but stuffy or stilted. The film benefits from its young leads (Steinfield and Booth, during the making of this movie, were 16 and 20, respectively) in this and many other ways. The earnestness of their performance feels realistic and believable; they really sell the idealized, adolescent love that makes Romeo and Juliet work in a way that older, more experienced actors, might not. One standout scene in particular for me was the famous balcony scene in the garden.
Steinfield and Booth both contribute to making the balcony scene feel new by the way they speak the dialogue. Despite the formal language and syntax, the smoothness and alacrity of how they read their lines makes the pace clip along, reflecting slightly more modern and natural speech patterns. In order to gain this fluidity, some of the rhythm no doubt sounds slightly different than it might have in Shakespeare’s day, but since it is done in the spirit of making it feel fresh and accessible for a modern audience, I think this balances out any negatives. I also liked how they didn’t shy away from the inherent romanticism that pervades the original story in favor of making it darker or edger. There is beauty in accepting the story at face value as a story of two young people who truly fall in love, no matter how unrealistic or fantastic that might seem in today’s world. Romeo and Juliet is characterized by its emphasis on young teenagers and extreme emotions, and the director seems to instinctively understand this very well. Because, all of the swirling angst of the story aside, there is also an innocence, an unworldliness and immaturity that Steinfield and Booth, with their natural chemistry, express genuinely. In all, I thought this was a pretty flawless adaptation with a stellar cast that really captured the spirit of Shakespeare’s vision.
Another rendition, and the newest I have personally seen, is Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words, a ballet choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillian set to the original Prokofiev musical score and filmed by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt in 2019. Historically, there have been many ballet interpretations of Romeo and Juliet by many choreographers over the years, but, in his version, MacMillian brings something new to the table.
Being a Royal Ballet production, the expectations were already set considerably high, but this production succeeds in delivering. In any ballet, of course, the power of the performance rests on the capabilities of the dancers, and the two principles, Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell, have this in spades. By pairing two artists with such mastery, as well as an innate, organic chemistry, it makes for a magnetic performance that is magical to watch. Though I thought both of them performed exceptionally well, I personally felt that Hayward’s performance shone the brightest. Her lissom limbs and waifish figure belie the quiet, hypnotic power she possesses. As skilled an actress as she is a dancer, the sheer emotion she is able to convey through her expressions and movements, capturing both the innocence and inner resilience of Juliet, makes her a treat to watch. I also thought it was interesting how this interpretation brought the color and flavor of the streets of Verona into the story.
The vibrancy and the realism are really brought through by the entirety of the cast and add a certain grittiness and palpability. I also liked the focus yet again on how youthful both Romeo and Juliet truly are. The scene where we see Romeo playfully flirting with a girl on the street and the scene with Juliet trying to take the doll from her nurse underscore that they are really children still at heart who become victimized by the hate their families h0ld for each other. A standout scene for me is the morning after their wedding when Hayward and Bracewell dance an exquisite pas de deux as Romeo bids his Juliet farewell. The sets used were also absolutely incredible and some of the most beautiful I have ever seen in a ballet. If there is any con for this adaption, it would be that since it is a ballet, you do miss out on the descriptive and beautiful dialogue that is so integral to Shakespearean drama. But the powerful ability of Hayward and Bracewell to emote with their bodies and facial expressions makes up for it.
Romeo and Juliet is a classic tale that has mesmerized audiences, whether theatergoers or film aficionados, for generations. Its classics themes of love, sacrifice, and bravery are timeless and transcend time and place. As long as there is love in the world, there will be people inspired by Shakespeare’s story of youthful passion and overwhelming woe, regardless of medium. I highly recommend trying both the 2013 film version and the ballet version for yourself! Each in its own way is a unique and beautiful piece of art that can be enjoyed on its own merits.