The University of Notre Dame presents a classic story in a contemporary fashion
As students returned to campus this fall, the University of Notre Dame hosted its 23rd annual Shakespeare Festival. The signature event was a modern take on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It ran in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center from August 16–28.
The Shakespeare Festival is a Notre Dame tradition that grew out of “Summer Shakespeare,” a much smaller and less formal event with performances held in Washington Hall. Each season of the Shakespeare Festival includes a production by the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival (NDSF) Professional Company. This year’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet” is the latest of the company’s showings, which in the past have included works such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Othello,” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”
A self-described “Romeo and Juliet practitioner,” director Chris Anthony has directed at least 12 productions of “Romeo and Juliet” before this fall, and she has worked in Los Angeles County schools for many years, helping teachers more effectively present the play to students. In an interview with WNIT, Anthony stated, “in educational theater, we work on this one a lot.”
Anthony’s production of the Bard’s famous tragedy shifts the setting from the medieval town of Verona, Italy to “Verona Palms,” a wealthy community which bears some similarities to Palm Springs, California. Though it is never stated explicitly, the costumes and props suggest that the story is set sometime in the twenty-first century.
The decision to tell the story in a more modern, familiar setting may be dismissed by some as change simply for the sake of a change. Anthony denies these allegations. In an interview with the South Bend Tribune, Anthony said, “For a lot of young people, their only real experience with Shakespeare is ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in their ninth grade English class.” For many of these students, the setting of the story is so far in the past that they fail to fully appreciate it.
By changing the incidentals, the play becomes far more accessible to the modern viewer. Anthony says that the changes she made, far from detracting from the story, actually help the play stay true to its original spirit. When “Romeo and Juliet” was first performed in 1597, the audience was not meant to view the performance as something that took place in the far-distant past. “Shakespeare was writing to the audience he was writing to,” says Anthony in her interview with WNIT, “and we do the same.” Thus, cloaks and boots and feathered hats become suits and slides and baseball caps. “Romeo and Juliet” suddenly becomes more familiar, and therefore more accessible, argues Anthony.
A shift like this is not without its challenges, especially since the production stuck to the original script. Yet it is precisely in overcoming these challenges that the NDSF Professional Company displays its creativity. For instance, there is a number of fight scenes throughout the play. In some cases, such as in the skirmish which leaves Tybalt and Mercutio dead, Shakespere specifically mentions the sharp, slender swords called “rapiers.” Most modern people do not carry rapiers; and so, in these cases, the characters arm themselves with fencing swords (fencing seems a plausible enough pastime of the wealthy citizens of Verona Palms) and engage in swordplay. In other cases, such as the brawl that occurs at the beginning of the story, Shakespeare uses the more general term “weapon,” giving the characters the freedom to enter the fray with all manner of modern appliances: a bat, a golf club, and even a weedwacker.
In these ways and more, the Professional Company was able to produce a show that stayed true to Shakespeare, but was at the same time accessible and engaging for a modern audience. After their performance on August 27, the cast received a standing ovation. Now that the curtain has gone down on Chris Anthony’s “Romeo and Juliet,” fans of the Bard are left anticipating what next year’s Shakespeare Festival will bring.
Jack Thornton is a sophomore majoring in philosophy and theology. He can often be found in the reading room of Baumer Hall during weekdays between the hours of 11pm and 3am; he can also be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image by Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival