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My Shakespeare Reviews

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½ April 9, 2012
Why We Study Shakespeare

My apologies, loyal readers--I spent my weekend in a hotel which expected me to pay for internet access. And in many ways, my experiences there tie in to what we will be discussing today, because it was all about pretending. It was a science fiction/fantasy/science fact convention, and most of the discussions I went to were about tying the whole thing into your real life. The real world. We use our fandom as an extension of ourselves. One of my friends is even making a living with hers, which is both nice and rare. But the thing is, a lot of what we do is based on the same themes Shakespeare was working with. (You see? We got there!) After all, it didn't take much work to turn [i]The Tempest[/i] into [i]Forbidden Planet[/i]. And, for one weekend at least, all the Seatac Doubletree was our stage, and we were merely players. So, you know. We must all acknowledge our debt to what he wrote four hundred years ago, and I think most of us have an "exposed to Shakespeare" story to share.

Contrary to what the packaging suggests, this is only marginally Baz Luhrmann's exposed to Shakespeare story. Mostly, this is about Paterson Joseph (once the Marquis De Carabas!) bringing Shakespeare to his home town. He was born and raised in Harlesden, a pretty rough section of London. I wouldn't call him a well-known actor, but he's successful enough to be making a living at it. And he decided that what he really wanted to do was get up a production of that most famous of plays, [i]Romeo and Juliet[/i], with nothing but amateurs living in Harlesden. None of them had ever acted before; most of them are not acting now. He casts as his Juliet a girl from Afghanistan who wants to go to med school and then go back home and be a doctor. His Romeo had already been stabbed twice. His Mercutio was a Somali refugee. What with one thing and another, these were people who could barely be expected to have seen Shakespeare performed, much less act in it themselves.

On the one hand, [i]Romeo and Juliet[/i] is one of my least favourite Shakespearean plays. I think it's hugely overrated, and I think people who go on about what a great romance it is haven't really paid attention to the plot. On the other, I think it has a more universal theme than most of the rest of the plays. I think it's easier to explain the story to people, and I think people have an easier time connecting it to their own lives. Everyone can get behind stupid young lovers--and a lot of people don't realize how stupid Romeo actually is. (I think Juliet is cunning, if not experienced enough to have a happy ending.) Certainly teenagers understand having everyone tell them what to do! So, yes, they had to be told who Queen Mab is, but they didn't have to be told why these characters would rather kill themselves than live apart. Probably this is why it's the play everyone reads for freshman English. Fourteen is the perfect age for understanding it.

I read once grousing that the magic solution to poverty in so many movies is writing. When it's a well established fact that hardly anyone makes a living at writing. So much better, if a little less cinematic, to teach them engineering. Certainly acting is no great improvement; there are probably as many starving actors as there are starving writers, if not more. And it's true that only two of the cast members are expressly said to have gone on to acting--only one has an IMDb page, and he's only got one other credit. But one of the young women in the play tells us that she had never finished anything before, and we are told that she went on to learn a trade. Several of the actors started really looking at what options they had. What was important was not so much that they learned to act but that they learned that they have opportunities, if only they go looking for them. There is a wider world than just Harlesden.

It did not surprise me to learn that the actors had an easier time with the violence than with the romance. After all, Romeo [i]had[/i] been stabbed twice, and Mercutio was a refugee from a war zone. Violence was easier. Anger was easier. Romance is, in many ways, a luxury. Showing tenderness is pretty much by definition showing weakness, and these are people who live somewhere they cannot afford to be weak. They have lived lives which did not encourage it. And in a way, that makes this production a form of therapy, a way of getting in touch with real feelings. Possibly this will be as helpful in years to come as the acting skills themselves. And possibly this is at least part of why Shakespeare still resonates, all these hundreds of years later. Not everyone can connect to everything he wrote, but everyone can connect to [i]something[/i]. I do not believe that [i]Romeo and Juliet[/i] is a true portrayal of what love is really like, though I think you can be fooled into believing it while watching a good production. But there is something for everyone, I think, even if Shakespeare doesn't seem to have taken love very seriously himself.
½ October 6, 2011
Wish I could see the full production they put on, the clips are beautiful.
May 19, 2009
A fascinating documentary about an actor from a London ghetto who comes back to his neighbourhood to stage a production of Romeo and Juliet using all non-professional actors, mostly kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Most of them have little knowledge of Shakespeare and even less ambition. Via webcam, Baz Luhrman, director of the 1996 movie version of the play starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, provides guidance. We watch the kids go through workshops and rehearsals to understand the text, and then overcome obstacles including stage fright, clashing with their characters, and general apathy. Their growth over the four-week period from casting to showtime is beautiful to witness, and many of them are changed forever from the experience. Highly recommended for anyone who is a fan of theatre or Shakespeare.
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