Today I went to see a college production of Romeo and Juliet, and it was very, very different from anything I’ve seen before. Instead of being purely modernized or purely historical, it was an odd mix of old and new, with swords and daggers used in all the major fight scenes while at the same time using modern dress: suits, sneakers, and women in pants. Women in pants fighting with swords, even, because several supporting roles went to women that were originally written as men. While Romeo and Juliet is typically a story in which the men fight and the women stay on the fringes or get caught in the crossfire, in this version women were active participants in the feud and actively involved in trying to end it as well. I’m not sure what kind of statement, if any, they were trying to make here, but the result was a play that felt both more balanced and modern and, at times, even more disturbing. Juliet being forced to marry Count Paris is one thing. Juliet being forced to marry Count Paris while a female Benvolio is out there swordfighting and sneaking into parties with her cousin feels shockingly unfair, highlighting just how little control Juliet has over her own future.
The anachronistic interpretation took a little getting used to. But on the other hand, Shakespeare’s plays are full of anachronisms. They were often performed in the clothing of the time despite taking place in the past, and the texts themselves often impose elements of contemporary culture onto historical societies. For instance, Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is given the choice to marry Demetrius or become a nun – in Ancient Greece! The stories in Shakespeare have more to do with Elizabethan England than with the places they are supposedly set, and continue to be relevant today despite being over 400 years old. In a way, the stories could be said to take place outside the typical boundaries of time and place. They could take place at any time, in almost any location. The production that I saw made the story feel both timeless and immediate, not so much like a period piece but like something from hundreds of years ago happening right now – which is probably just as Shakespeare intended it.