The First Time

Romeo and Juliet NL

by Heidi Malazdrewich

I can’t remember the first time I heard the story of Romeo and Juliet. It seems to have always been a part of my narrative landscape. As a teenager it coloured my angst ridden experience. Baz Luhrmann’s film version emerged into popular culture, and suddenly the soundtrack played in every car and at every sweaty high school dance. Needless to say the story had become hopelessly entangled with memories of love unrequited and pubescent giddiness— a sort of emotional touchstone to a riper more edgy time of my existence. It was filed away and kept for safe keeping.

Romeo and Juliet movies

photos: Stills from Romeo + Juliet movie 1996; Heidi Malazdrewich headshot

When Andrew and Michelle approached me to direct Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare in the Ruins I jumped at the chance to tell the story. Reading the play as an adult I was struck by the pace through which all of the action takes place. It is summer, it is very, very hot and there is pressure on everyone to maintain family, profit, peace, and status. The young are fighting and lusting to alleviate the pressure, but also to give their lives meaning. There is a juxtaposition of hate and love at the core of this play. The pendulum of needs and emotion are swinging in great swoops and so quickly that calmer heads do not prevail. All are in a state of re-action.

The play begins with a prologue that outlines the plot including the ultimate demise of the titled characters. In the first few minutes the audience learns how and why events will play out. So why bother with the remainder of the exercise? Why spend the next two hours or so re-enacting the events just stated so clearly (and in rhyming verse no less)? I believe it is to exercise our ability to empathize, and through that journey, recognize our own actions and impulses in the rushed and ill-advised behaviour of our proxies on stage. Ideally, when the last words are uttered and we pile into our cars to start the journey home we not only can tell the story of R & J (as I am sure we could have done at the beginning of the night) but we also have a new more visceral knowledge of how poorly laid plans went astray.

So how does this relate to me now? No longer swaying in high school gymnasiums motivated by teenage angst and lust? My instinct says that the story is rooted in the every day struggle for steadiness in a time of impulsivity. The experience of the play also serves as a reminder of the privilege some of us have to step outside of a heated conflict (whether it be a mundane social media battle or something much more pressing in our communities) and think about how we may be of aid in preventing tragedies. The play allows us to simultaneously empathize with the characters while maintaining a safe distance. Hopefully this will provides us with the needed insight to chart a better course.

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