Two Bold New Productions Reimagine the Classic 'Romeo and Juliet'—and Prove Shakespeare’s Enduring Relevance

Theater creatives are navigating the pandemic-pivot, broadcasting traditional stage plays in the form of radio plays and film adaptations. 

Recently, Lupita Nyong’o has been working on a skill she never imagined she’d have to master: the stage kiss, performed without ever stepping foot on a stage or, in fact, actually kissing her stage partner. This isn’t some abstract actorly exercise; it’s crucial preparation for the Oscar winner’s latest role. As the tragic heroine of Romeo y Julieta—a bilingual radio-play adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic produced by New York’s Public Theater and the local NPR affiliate WNYC—Nyong’o and her Romeo, Juan Castano, have dissected each kiss: “Who initiated it, what level of confidence it possessed. A peck? Smooch? French kiss? Snog? How long it lasted, what the perceived effect was on each of us,” Nyong’o explains. “It’s been hilarious, wild, and wonderful.”

As Nyong’o has learned, an audio-only format offers “a different kind of constraint, and a different kind of liberation too” from a traditional stage play. That description that could well apply to the many pivots the theater community has attempted in order to stay afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic, from livestreams and podcast musicals to YouTube concert specials.

Even as theater companies seek innovative ways to reach audiences at home, some have turned to the comfort of the classics. Romeo y Julieta is the Public’s second radio Shakespeare adaptation in the past year, after a stunning Richard II starring André Holland last July. And this spring it’s joined by another rethink of the same work: At London’s National Theatre, a production of Romeo and Juliet intended to have premiered last June is being entirely reimagined as a film, with rising screen stars (and real-life friends) Jessie Buckley (Fargo; I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and Josh O’Connor (The Crown’s Prince Charles) as the star-crossed lovers.

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For director Saheem Ali—who in August was appointed associate artistic director and resident director at the Public—the potential of the radio play came as a surprise. When the pandemic canceled the theater’s usual Shakespeare in the Park season, WNYC approached him with the idea as a way to adapt the planned summer production of Richard II. “I was immediately intrigued,” Ali recalls. “What we found was something much more intimate, more evocative—a real interiority you don’t get when you’re performing for a group of people outdoors. I was fascinated by the sense of eavesdropping on people’s conversations, having this one-on-one relationship with the listener.”

Working only with audio, he realized, lent Shakespeare a new expansiveness: He didn’t need to provide visual cues indicating a particular place or time, and the actors could bring their own cultural identities to their roles freely. When it came to adapting Romeo y Julieta, Ali and his collaborator Ricardo Pérez González took advantage of that freedom, conceiving a production nearly half in Spanish, based in part on a translation by Alfredo Michel Modenessi.

“I grew up bilingual in Kenya, and like most people from cultures like that, you switch back and forth depending on who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about,” Ali says. He and González, who is Puerto Rican American, cast actors conversant in both languages, including the Mexican-born Nyong’o—a long-time friend of Ali’s who’d in fact played Juliet opposite his Mercutio in a late ’90s Kenyan production. “I mean, Shakespeare is hard enough to understand in English!” Nyong’o says of finding out she’d be responsible for speaking in two languages. “So I had a little panic—read: full-blown hysteria—moved past it, and got to work.”

González, Ali, and Modenessi embraced the individual, multilayered cultural backgrounds of the cast—from their accents to their preferred phrasings or word choices. Ali intentionally did not imagine the Capulets and Montagues as belonging to only one language or culture, a decision that ultimately emphasized the play’s timeliness. “Our tension and conflict are much more complex than that,” he says. “You can’t tell by looking at someone what side they’re on. That’s the country we’re in right now.”

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The National Theatre, like the Public, found felicitous advantages in an unexpected medium. Director Simon Godwin (who helms the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.) and his collaborator Emily Burns weren’t strangers to theater on film; through NT Live, the National has already had massive success streaming its productions to the big screen. But reverting to that exact formula didn’t quite feel right for Romeo and Juliet.

“Theater filmed in that way is so often buoyed by the audience experience—the sense of them being there, hearing them respond,” says Burns. “Not having that might have been strange.” A theater-movie hybrid could, they reasoned, perhaps create a different kind of energy. With a team of both theater and film pros, Godwin and Burns went about transforming the National’s Lyttelton—a cavernous theater that Burns likens to an airplane hangar, with adjacent spaces typically used for set storage— into a de facto film studio. “As the story unfolds on film, you see the actors moving from rehearsal-like conditions into occupying much more realized landscapes,” Godwin explains—a reflection of Romeo and Juliet’s own movement from a world of their imaginations into one they will into existence.

Much like the Public’s Ali, Godwin and Burns discovered that the tools of a new medium enabled an added level of intimacy between the actors and audience. “It’s a much more privileged view of the secret world of Romeo and Juliet,” he says. “Reducing the distance between us and them.” As Burns points out, performances on film are in many ways smaller and more naturalistic than those on stage. “Onstage, there’s people speaking loudly even when they’re supposed to be whispering,” she says with a laugh. “There’s very little sensuality about yelling at someone across the stage.” In their production, on the other hand, “there’s lots about whispering in someone’s ear. We can up the domesticity of it.”

And for the teams on both sides of the Atlantic, that kind of connection felt like an especially good argument for producing Shakespeare now—Romeo and Juliet in particular. Shakespeare himself was no stranger to the idea of making art amid a plague. As González points out, “he lived through a couple himself. It’s appropriate that we’re getting together in the safety of our homes, listening to this work that connects us to a very specific moment, which was itself a troubled time.”

In an effort to keep Shakespeare relevant, theater directors “so often come up with aggressively voguish concepts,” Godwin says. “I suppose the joy for me has been in stripping that away—finding the story of passion and desire and violence and misunderstanding and people trying to do their best and it ending badly. It’s a chance to go into fantasy, but also remind us of the power of the heart.” Romeo y Julieta airs on WNYC radio on March 18. The National Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet will be broadcast on PBS on April 23.