Compare the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet in two contrasting forms

In this assignment I am going to compare the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet in two contrasting forms. The First is the Baz Lurmann film which was completed in 1997 and was very controversial because it was a very modern interpretation of a well known and much loved classic play. I will then compare it with the standard text of the play, attempting to analyse how they differ and which I find to be the best.

The Baz Lurmann production of Romeo and Juliet brings the play very much into the 20th century. Being set in Verona Beach, a suburb of Modern day Los Angeles. The production is characterised by speed, movement and music on a vast scale. The production is clearly at the present time as we are introduced to the prologue by an American newsreader, the television screen occupying the centre of an otherwise empty screen. After this the camera action begins to erupt into a sequence of breathtaking scenes. The camera is mounted on a helicopter and there is constant change of focus zooming in on individual buildings and zooming out to show the amazing sprawl of a modern American city. One of the most memorable images of this sequence is a view of a massive statue of Christ, which reminds us of history and of the position of religion in the play. This image is the only one we see that could have been included in both the first production and this one.

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The speed that the images change makes us feel that this is a modern context and this is emphasized by the use of music. At times the music is choral with orchestral backing and is on a huge scale. This adds to the feeling of impending doom and great events to come.

When we first see the ‘ Montague Boy’s’ they are driving along in an open top American car. They are shown as unpleasant hoodlums in a typical American style. An interesting detail is the number plate of the car, which bears the name Verona Beach. Although the background is unquestionably modern the dialogue remains true to the text and the characters speak it with real energy and aggression. Spitting out their lines. This fits in very well with the sense of the dialogue, as the boys would use a very stylised way of speaking.

As the scene develops the camera jumps about and we seldom get a stable image. It is as if the director wants to show that there is a loss of control developing. The Montague and Capulet’s meet on the forecourt of a garage. Here we see more details that link the original text and Lurmanns Production. When Benvollio draws his gun we see that it is called a ‘sword 9mm’ this simple idea makes sense of the instruction ‘put up thy sword’

When the Capulet’s and Montague’s meet at the petrol station the pictures become more manic, zany and insane. The characters behave in an uncontrolled violent and aggressive way. Literally screaming their lines at each other. An other reference to the original play form is a nun coming out of the garage shop and being treated to obscene gestures by the Montague’s. The image is nightmare and Tybalt appears as a satanic character. When the fighting begins it is stylised choreographed violence and the music is similar to that of a Clint Eastwood Western. The climax of this modern interpretation is when Tybalt drops his lighted cigar into the spilt petrol and the whole scene erupts into flame. The camera pans out to a helicopter hovering above giving the audience a global view of the pandemonium and destruction. The opening scene this far can be characterised by the following aspects. Motion, Music, Violence and Madness.

This scene sets the tone of the drama very effectively. We have a good view of madness, aggression and a conflict that will eventually destroy everybody in its fiery passion. The closing of the scene is one of tremendous contrast. Romeos parents discuss their son in a peaceful location, using quiet sympathetic voices and the accompanying soundtrack is a single soothing guitar.

In Shakespeare’s original text the dramatic movement is much slower with the Capulet’s having a relaxed conversation. Each of the opening lines are written at a slow pace and they gain their impact from the witty content. The lines also contain humorous and bawdy references. For example:

“Women, being the weaker vessels are ever thrust to the wall, therefore, I will push Montague’s men from the wall and thrust his maids to the wall”

The impact of the original play comes from the words themselves, the dialogue being comic in the way the men discuss their enemies, and the smutty innuendo. This would probably have caused the Elizabethan audience to laugh at this stage, which is in complete contrast to the modern version .Sampson and Gregory compete with one another to make witty statements and it would be difficult for the audience to appreciate that they are about to witness a total tragedy.

Even when the Capulet’s and Montague’s meet in the square there is little of the threat and aggression we see in the film. The exchange of insults is done in quite a gentlemanly way, the men ending each line with the word ‘sir’. The argument between the two families is not brought up to a climax gradually. After a few exchanges they follow the stage direction ‘they fight’

The film version of the play brings the audience up to frenzy by the nature of the images shown and the frantic pace the story opens. In the film there is a sense of everything being out of control and chaos, whereas the play script does little to build up a sense of fear and impending doom.

It is always the responsibility of the producer to turn the words on the page into action but it is difficult to see how Shakespeare’s words could give the audience signals about what is to come.

Out of the two versions I find the modern film to be the most effective because it creates a real sense of foreboding and uncertainty. The world of Verona beach seems strange and exciting and I tend to associate modern American cities with the gang warfare that would create the circumstances in which Romeo and Juliet suffer their terrible fate. It is strange to think that Verona Beach LA has more in common with Verona at the time of Romeo and Juliet than modern England or Shakespeare’s England.

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