Romeo in the ‘Hood
I was not expecting much from Romeo + Juliet (starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes). All I knew was that it was some kind of music-video version of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. I’m a big fan of the Bard, but when he’s done badly, watch out. So when Romeo + Juliet dove right in using Shakespeare’s dialog, and the chorus’s opening lines (“Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene”) were recounted by a television newscaster, I thought I was in for it.
But forsooth, this is a pretty play! The words are Shakespeare’s, but the setting is a stylized, mythical, tropical city of Verona in the present day. Swords have become guns, and the sons of the feuding Capulet and Montague families have become rich-kid gangs whose rumbles bring out armies of cops. The contemporary setting gives the story the immediacy and passion that Romeo and Juliet must have had for audiences in Shakespeare’s time — qualities I feel sometimes get lost in the costume dramas that are many modern productions of Shakespeare.
The oddest thing is how well the Shakespearean language fits into the film’s setting, and how well actors you’d never think of as Shakespearean pull their roles off. DiCaprio as Romeo is brilliant, as is Danes. But Brian Dennehy as Montague? Paul Sorvino as Capulet? John Leguizamo as a nasty Capulet homeboy? Everyone — down to the aforementioned newscaster — is perfect. The language flows so beautifully that you barely notice you’re listening to 400-year-old dialog. It’s the ultimate proof that Shakespeare wrote about what it means to be human, and that that hasn’t changed in centuries.
I’m sure there were critics who complained, when Romeo + Juliet was first released, that the film cheapens Shakespeare somehow with its rock soundtrack and jumpy camera work and quick edits. But I bet Shakespeare would have hated how his plays have acquired snob appeal to the point where most people are intimidated by his work. Shakespeare wasn’t just a great wordsmith — he told captivating stories. It’s a shame that most people don’t get to experience those stories because they’ve heard that Shakespeare is “too hard” to understand or because the one or two productions they did see were lackluster and passionless enough to make them think the Bard is boring.
I want more productions like this. Shakespeare isn’t inaccessible — his work is just rarely done right. Romeo + Juliet is done right.