When telling an old story that nearly everyone knows by heart, it’s normal to want to give it a new spin.
The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s latest production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Steven Schipper, is a perfect example.
The timeless tale of young love and age-old feuds finds a new setting in modern-day Jerusalem. The warring Montagues and Capulets are now Jews and Palestinians, respectively, and their feud takes on a whole new geo-political meaning.
For the most part, this adaptation works perfectly to lend a new edge of excitement to an already exhilarating tale. The set is beautifully fashioned as an interior/exterior of Middle Eastern architecture and features some truly magical lighting work as well as two innovative projection screens that really bring the Israeli setting to life.
However, that’s about as far as the differences go.
Because Shakespeare’s original text has been unaltered, the conflict is still limited to a family feud; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a purely visual component of the play, which is slightly disappointing.
With the huge prevalence of Palestinian struggle for international recognition happening right now, there is an ideal opportunity for some creative changes to the play.
The lack of any modifications to the text leads to some other minor inconsistencies, too.
Both the Jewish Romeo and the Muslim Juliet repeatedly visit a Christian clergyman for advice and assistance. The characters also still speak of their location as Verona, which would have been an easy problem to fix.
Besides these issues, the production has a polished feel.
The players are fantastically cast and provide inspiring and believable performances. Romeo (Marc Bendavid) and Mercutio (Gareth Potter) are especially hilarious. The part of Juliet, played by Pam Patel, is sweet but a little quiet at times.
The fight scenes are exciting to watch and actually enhance, rather than distract from, the story.
The modern touches to the set and the characters really prove the timeless appeal of this 400-year-old story. Romeo’s shiny bike and the Prince’s uzi-toting, tuxedo-wearing henchmen recast the various roles in a way that modern audiences can really appreciate.
The accompanying musical soundtrack adds a distinct Middle Eastern flavour and rounds out a thorough sensory experience.
In the end, despite a few missed opportunities to capitalize on an ingenious adaptive concept, this version of Romeo and Juliet accomplishes exactly what it has been accomplishing for hundreds of years: it places a human price on violence and conflict.
Romeo and Juliet plays at MTC’s John Hirsch Mainstage until Dec. 17. For show times and ticket prices visit www.mtc.mb.ca.
Published in Volume 66, Number 14 of The Uniter (November 30, 2011)