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This year, I produced and directed Romeo and Juliet with dRAMSet, the two performances being June 20 and 21.

When one decides to produce a Shakespearean play, it has become necessary over the past centuries to adapt the playtext to modern audiences. This does not mean, of course, that the witches in the Scottish Play need mobile phones, or that Shylock needs to use the f-word in his big soliloquy; but it means that one has to concentrate on certain aspects and work them in a way that a contemporary audience can respond to them (rather than study “Shakespeare” in a museum-like re-enactment). Romeo and Juliet, of course, offers itself to a school’s dramatic society because of the very age of its protagonists. I took it from there…

As my cast and the most important part of our audience is about the same age as R&J themselves, it is obviously a good idea to concentrate on this aspect. Hence, I cut the basic text down to a version in which the environment of family and education moves into the centre. That meant as a consequence that most of the political aspects had to go; Family is fundamentally a social, not a political concept.

Juliet’s family appears then as the patriarchal unit in which the word of the Husband and Father is the law. Although Juliet’s nurse and her mother try(!) to contradict old Capulet, they constantly fail. As a marginal note: this is quite unusual in Shakespeare, because it is often the female characters who make the decisions (even if the men tend to think the decisions are their own).
Juliet grows up in a microcosm in which her father is obeyed. There is no room for an emotional bond between father and daughter. The emotional bond between mother and daughter seems to be prevented by the institution of the nurse. Sometimes, Juliet’s mother appears to be really interested in her daughter, but she cannot connect (the night before Juliet’s wedding to Paris, the mother accepts her husband’s decision and leaves a devastated girl behind). Emotionally, it seems to be the Nurse where a connection is possible. When one looks closer, however (and in a “family cut”, one must do exactly that), she could, but she does not. The Nurse helps Juliet “against” the restrictions of the parents as long as sex and friendship are concerned, but when Juliet is facing complete rejection by her family, the Nurse sticks to the family’s values and does not offer consolation and alternatives to marrying Paris. Juliet is a truly lonely character. Unfortunately, we have to assume that more than only a few members in the audience could identify…

Romeo’s family is much less prominent in Shakespeare’s text; He is already the man who has to be his own master. The few references to his parents can be left out of the playtext without doing great harm to the whole. What is important here is Romeo’s positioning in his peer group of “rascals”. Those “boys as men” show what they believe are male positions in society, they take their rights and expect to get through with it — to become finally the “Man in the house”, just like Juliet’s father. Hence, cuts to those characters must be made very carefully. I tried to cut only those passages that tend to be too difficult to understand for an audience that does not consist of English native speakers (puns and the like need to be understood quickly, otherwise the performance becomes tiresome instead of entertaining).

The third character around which I built the production was Friar Lawrence. Obviously, he is an important wheel in the motor of the pure action, so he could not be cut heavily anyway. But then, there is another aspect which turned him into a very important key figure for our version. When he talks to Romeo, Friar Lawrence establishes not only the discourses of “growing up – being educated”, “loving — caring — taking responsibility”, but he also introduces the concept of gender into the play. Again, this issue cries out to be tackled by a contemporary school’s theatrical company. The role of men and women in society and, indeed, art, has changed and is still changing. There are voices calling for more female teachers, others crying out for more male role models; Schools discuss the boy-girl ratio amongst their best pupils; … and we had more girls than boys in our cast (we usually do). Friar Lawrence was the initator of my decision to present Romeo and Juliet with a cross-gender casting. The text was then appropriately cut, so that none of the references to “the other sex” is left out if at all possible.

I was now left with a text about two young people looking for their individual places in “society”, looking for role models and assuming they love each other. So far so good, but what to do with the very end, in which both families end up accepting and honouring each other again. I had to solve what I tend to think of as the “Nathan problem”: no audience on this planet will ever believe this solution of a play. Especially in school performances, it is very important to offer a believable storyline to the people in the audience, otherwise they will not be back for the next show. So, I decided to present the end as exactly what it is: A theatrical coup rather than an integral part of the story (in a political version of the play, of course, this could be different!).

Please feel free to download and use my version of the play (I am not claiming any kind of copyright on cuts 🙂 ): Romeo and Juliet – Version 4 – final cut (PDF) 

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