I am not the biggest Shakespeare fan. I think I understand his charms as a poet, but the poetry doesn't translate well to stage, for me. I find many of the words too obscure to process quickly, so while I'm puzzling out what a line means, three more have gone by. For me, seeing one of Shakespeare's plays is doing battle with sometimes impenetrable language. So much of the meaning has to come through the actors--when I don't understand a word, or a phrase, or even an entire paragraph of dialogue, I have to rely on body language, gesture, and blocking to help me understand what's going on. Obviously, those things are always a part of communication, and in every play the way characters act clues you in to the meaning of their dialogue. But when I hear Shakespeare, the meaning the actors imbue to a line with their acting is often completely divorced from the words themselves, because I have no idea what the words mean.
I went to Romeo and Juliet at Cal Shakes on Saturday night.
The production was great. I loved the cast, especially Juliet and Mercutio. The two of them blew me away with energy and wit, which fit the production's aesthetic perfectly. The scenes and the characters felt important and vital, and the set design (minimalist) coupled with the costuming (generally simple, modern garb) focused attention on the acting. That worked, because the acting was great. The play itself was not what I expected.
I had not seen Romeo and Juliet before, and knew about the play only what I'd picked up through high school and cultural osmosis (the outline of the plot, several famous phrases). The thing that struck me about the play was just how young its central characters are. In the CalShakes production, Mercutio and Benvolio dial up the crass action pretty high (at one point, Mercutio moons the audience), and their characters are certainly written as some crude dudes. Juliet can hardly stop thinking about sex long enough to fall in love with Romeo. Romeo falls in love with Juliet after spending the first scenes of the play crippled by love for another girl. All these characters are children, which--to me--was the great tragedy of the play. The tragedy was not that Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers, could not be together. The tragedy was that none of the adults in the play payed enough attention to the children to prevent them from making some very stupid decisions. I left wondering why these children felt they had to kill themselves for love.
Is the love between Romeo and Juliet "true" love? What does that even mean? Romeo is obviously infatuated with Juliet, and Juliet with Romeo. They pledge love to each other, then decide to marry less than 24 hours after meeting, mostly, it seems, so that they can have sex without pissing off God (or a devout audience?). What are their parents doing????
To return to my first paragraph, complaining about obscure language: the language doesn't just obscure the immediate meaning of words, but also Romeo and Juliet's youth. Their language--measured, careful, beautiful, mature--connotes a capability for serious thought which I doubt Romeo or Juliet could really have at their age. It leads us to trust their judgment more than if they spoke in uncertain sentences broken with awkward pauses as they picked at pimple scabs on their foreheads.