By Simon Godwin
Artistic Director, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Associate Artistic Director, National Theatre
Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy of time. Or, more specifically, the lack of time. Shakespeare’s story occurs over just five fleeting days and nights. Even the prologue famously promises that the star-crossed lovers will perish within the “two hours traffic of our stage.”
After we learned that our production of Romeo & Juliet would no longer appear on the Olivier Stage, we reimagined Shakespeare’s tragedy for film. Time was not on our side. We had three weeks for rehearsals, two weeks of filming, and three weeks for post-production. During this creative whirlwind, I learned filmmaking 101 from our cinematographer and members of the cast, who were as adept in front of a camera as they were in front of a live audience. The film, too, was no longer “two hours traffic” but, with the visionary script editing of Emily Burns, was now set to run across just 90 minutes of screen time.
Filming allowed us to embrace these challenges. Through the intercutting of scenes that flashforward or flashback, we were able to tease out the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet in just a few seconds of screen time. As Romeo and Juliet’s hands touch at the Capulet ball, we show them in a subsequent intimate embrace, then leap forwards to their final resting place side-by-side, then back to this first touch. A life lived in seconds. The film describes first meetings, first kisses, violent deaths, and gestures of redemption. These tactile moments are fleeting in the experience yet eternal in the memory. Shakespeare was passionately curious about the metaphysics of desire. Now we could find a cinematic language to match his search.
But if time is malleable, it can change us as well. During the last fourteen months, as Hamlet remarks, “the time” has felt “out of joint.” Time has seemed in control of us. Days have become confused as we fallen into new rhythms and distinctions have begun to blur. Time not spent with loved ones, traveling, visiting friends, going to the theatre. Time lost. Time speeding by too quickly or too slowly. As we have all been forced to navigate change, loss and hope, Juliet’s beautiful lament resonates across the years between Shakespeare writing his masterpiece and our current moment, “For in a minute there are many days.”
Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet streams at pbs.org/gperf and the PBS Video app.