Earlier this week I watched on DVD the 1968 Zeffirelli famous film of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a sumptuous sensual treat, language and scenery, narrative and romance, and fatal love.
Romeo’s cry “I am fortune’s fool” wrenches the heart. Like a Hardy novel the odds are stacked against the young lovers. Zeffirelli is at his best when he presents the placid bearer of Friar Lawrence’s message wending his slow way with a donkey while Romeo’s servant gallops past on his horse having watched Juliet's apparent corpse laid to rest in the family tomb. With horror the audience anticipates the approaching tragic ending.
Zeffirelli does three things superbly – First, those bored Veronese young bucks with their swords. Today’s under-engaged hoons swoon round in souped-up cars, just as lethal as swords. In either case a risk to life and limb, not only to themselves but to the citizenry at large. Zeffirelli's riot scene illustrated the potential - water melons and chickens at risk.
Second, the ball scene. The Renaissance splendour, the colour, the pageantry and the breathless enchantment of the young lovers. It is a scene to savour. Most historical film smacks of the modern contemporary. This scene didn't.
Third, the balcony scene. Rarely has romance been more erotically portrayed. It makes the audience believe in that ‘enchanted evening’. ‘I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’. ‘It is the east and Juliet is the sun’. Enchanting words.
The nurse is superb – bawdy, worldly, in love with her charge, protective of her interests.
Once I produced an abridged version of the play at school. I used a girl as Romeo. We badly bruised her legs during a rehearsal when she forgot to jump during the sword fight. [Large flat wooden swords] The boy playing Tybalt was mortified. His comforting embrace of a wounded classmate was worthy of the balcony scene. I mused about my casting.
Then during dress rehearsal one of the girls in charge of props arrived along with a lot of candles. She wanted to dot them around Juliet's tomb. I was aware of Juliet’s gown and the hall curtains. The last thing I wanted was a charred heroine. So I vetoed the candles. Tears, tantrums, a producer’s nightmare. A compromise - a lone candle burning on the other side of the stage. The only thing, Paris knocked it over during his sword fight. No candles! The whole production was a glorious experience. I cherish it. Kids, enthusiasm, a timeless great story, Shakespeare's language, what more could you want.
Back to the film. I’d forgotten and was disappointed at how Zeffirelli glossed over Juliet’s agonising before she took the friar’s lotion. It seems to me one of the most human moments of the play. It wasn’t Hamlet’s doubts but it dabbled in the same field.
Paris does not appear in the final scene of the film. As Zeffirelli portrays it the emphasis is upon the two star-crossed lovers. Fair enough. But I think Paris is a portrayal of another aspect of love. Romeo’s despatch of him not only adds to the body-count, it tells of desperation overcoming common-sense.
I’ll let Mercutio have the last word: ‘A plague on both your houses! They’ve made worm’s meat of me.’ All the world’s a stage – Verona’s a mere model for that larger theatre.
The 2018 Book Council Lecture
2 days ago