Shakespeare’s ‘star-crossed lovers’ are almost certainly amongst his best known characters, and the play itself was voted his most popular in a You Gov survey to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the author’s death. This story of transgressive romance, both challenging and overcoming parental and societal limitations struck a chord with the audience from the moment of its creation, as the title page of its 1597 publication tells us; “it hath been often, with great applause, plaid publiquely”.
What interested me about this celebrated love story is that it is as much about violence and hatred as it is about romance. The world the lovers inhabit is one fuelled by revenge, and internecine conflict. I wanted to find a way to represent a community torn by rivalry that the younger generation would like to escape, but which values loyalty to the family above all other considerations. The solution which came to me was to embed the drama firmly in the Italian culture that Shakespeare chose as his setting. Shakespeare’s fascination with Italy permeates the cannon of his work and the country is referenced so frequently that some scholars suggest that he may have travelled in Italy during his so called ‘lost years’ sometime between the mid-1580s and 1590s.
I have consequently chosen to set this production in Verona in the early 1960s with the context of La Mala del Brenta, a Northern Italian version of the Mafia. During this period a number of high-ranking Sicilian Mafiosi were sent to serve time in solitary confinement in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia regions. They gradually built networks with local underworld figures and rose to positions of power and prominence, eventually founding a high-calibre international syndicate, whilst also bringing old grudges and enmities along with them from the South. From the mid nineteen fifties through into the early sixties the model of the rebellious teenager, flaunting convention and challenging authority was also a developing social phenomenon, making it a suitable period for a story in which young people are developing a burgeoning sense of their own agency. Juliet is a young woman trapped in a fiercely patriarchal society, whose body is destined to be used a pawn to support her father’s strategic alliances. It takes enormous courage for her to resist such pressure, and to make a choice she recognises, at the very least, will cause her to be separated from her family forever. The power of love as an ecstatic, tempestuous and overpowering force that cannot be gainsaid is, of course, the central theme of the drama, but Virgil’s proverbial statement omnia vincit amor is overturned by the fact that Shakespeare chooses tragedy as his mode of expression, leading Romeo and Juliet towards the inevitability of death, and the play to its final outcome ‘a glooming peace’.