“Stage love will never be true love while the law of the land has our heroines played by pipsqueak boys in petticoats.” ~ Viola from Shakespeare in Love
Well, it’s finally happened.
I always thought I was reasonably enlightened when it came to Shakespeare. I studied his plays in high school and college, and once upon a time, I traveled to Stratford-on-Avon to see where he was born. I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Hamlet in England, and even ventured to Verona to gaze at Juliet’s balcony.
But I guess nothing could have prepared me for Shakespeare in drag.
When I heard that the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., was performing Romeo and Juliet with an all-male cast, I jumped at the chance. I would finally get to see the play as Shakespeare intended — written for and performed by male actors, at a time when women never appeared on stage.
To prepare, I re-read my favorite scenes. Juliet’s soliloquy (Act II, scene ii), spoken when she anticipates consummating her marriage, before she learns Romeo killed Tybalt, contains some of the Bard’s most ardent poetry:
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging! Such a wagoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway eyes may wink, and Romeo
Leap to these arms untalked of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites,
And by their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods.
Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle till strange love grow bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed
Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possessed by it; and though I am sold,
Not yet enjoyed. So tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
to an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them.
Associate Artistic Director, David Muse, said of R&J:
. . . when both of these roles are played by men, a lot of the performance of their love needs to live in the language that they speak. And Shakespeare was a writer of gorgeous poetry, but the reason the love poetry in this play is so glorious is in part because Shakespeare knew that two young men would be performing it. You couldn’t just count on two actors looking at each other and realistically being in love in a way that the audience was going to buy. And so the actors need to jump into the language and make its power convince us of the power of this love.
I tried very hard to keep an open mind, discounting the overly romanticized Hollywood versions that are part of my DNA. And to be fair, the actors who played Lady Capulet, Lady Montague, and Juliet’s nurse gave seamless performances. They embodied their characters fully and gender was of no consequence.
But Juliet (see him here), was taller than Romeo, gangly, and came off somewhat campy (loose wrists were involved). I was unable to suspend disbelief and agreed with Viola: natural femininity — all the nuances of facial expression, gesture, and comportment, crucial in communicating Juliet’s feelings of true love, were absent in this particular performance. Bravo, I say, bravo, for female actors! Henceforth, leave the gonads where they belong.
A couple of things made up for my disappointment, though.
I got this cool apron,
and two 10-year-old boys, sitting in front of us, offered a resounding “YES!” when asked if they enjoyed the play. Don’t you just love it when kids like Shakespeare?
The Poetry Friday Roundup is at Anastasia Suen’s Picture Book of the Day. Make haste!