Baz Luhrmann’s film adaption of William Shakespeare’s classical play Romeo and Juliet offers a fresh outlook on a work that often does not appeal to the modern audience. Through the use of bright color, dramatic scenes with exaggerated movements, Luhrmann has crafted a visual performance of the text that is engaging to both the classical trained mind and those who know little about Shakespeare. Contemporary artist Leonid Afremov also uses bright colors and dramatic lines and shading to capture the emotional rawness Shakespeare portrayed in the lover’s turmoil. His art represents his own performance of Romeo and Juliet, manifesting in the form of a painting.
The original text of Romeo and Juliet is in written form, on black and white paper with simple stage directions, which leaves the majority of the imagery up to the reader. This becomes a problem with modern readers, especially those in high school (when Shakespeare is most often taught) who are more partial to visual modes of experiencing stories. We live in an era of televisions, laptops and large cell phones that are constantly catching our attention with bright images and movement. Luhrmann uses this whirlwind of movement in much of his movie, for example, “In Romeo and Juliet Capulet’s ball is similarly treated. The first meeting of the lovers takes place amid round-dances so dizzying that even the camera is caught up in the whirl” (Hapgood in Boose 88).
As my high school teacher once said, Shakespeare is supposed to be performed, not read in a classroom; it is a performance meant to be experienced. Luhrmann effectively traverses between written words that hold the capacity for performance and a visual adaptation that is both modern and holds true to the original text. Luhrmann’s script is entirely true to Shakespeare’s own text, which can be difficult for modern readers to understand if they are not instructed in classical literature. Coupled with modern scenery, clothing and technology, Luhrmann is able to connect with the intended youthful audience without disregarding the poetry of Shakespeare’s words. And this approach worked for its target audience, “Romeo + Juliet constructed itself as a youth culture film and was tested at UC Berkeley for people only under 39, and then came in first at the box office on the weekend of its release” (Boose 13). Earlier forms of British English can be difficult for a modern audience to connect to, very rarely do we hear “O Romeo, Romeo, /wherefore art thou Romeo? /Deny thy father and refuse thy name, /Or if thou wilt not, /be but sworn my love”? But adding the visual emotions expressed by the actors, lighting effects and the proper music, and the audience hardly needs to hear words to understand what is going on and how Juliet might be feeling at that moment. Someone reading the original text of Romeo and Juliet may get bogged down by his archaic, though beautiful language, and give up on reading it altogether. To include the original text in a modern film adaptation was risky for a director who sought a young audience, and yet it masterfully brought the poetic beauty of the language and the aesthetic ease of the film medium together to create a text that is much more easily understood. “A movie maker who seeks a popular audience must also mediate boldly between the original theatrical medium and film: ‘cinema creates a different chemistry with the audience, a different taste, and the attention of the audience moves so fast…fantasy gallops in the audience in movies (Zeffirelli 261)’” (Boose 13).
Not only does Luhrmann’s performance of Romeo and Juliet bring the text to life in a modern era, but it provides an entire youth culture with the opportunity to think critically about the text. The modern viewer can take what they hear along with its visual as a mere part of a much larger text. “The electronic text…allows the critic to offer a fascinatingly accessible complexity of Shakespeares and intertextualities in a medium that invites interconnection and integration. In the electronic medium the reader is given access to the context of quotation, and the full experience of a graphic or video sequence. The result is that the critic is more open to criticism, and the reader becomes more fully a participator in the critical process” (Best 280). With the amount of Shakespearean film adaptations, the ability to connect texts is endless and invites even those who are not PhD holders to offer their take on how one text plays off another.
Leonid Afremov’s painting “Romeo and Juliet” may not seem like the performance of the original text, not in the sense that a film or play is, but it adapts the story into a personal expression of emotion that a film cannot reach. Afremov came to America from Israel with an arsenal of paintings that he took to various art galleries in New York City. Only a few paintings, all with similar “sellable” themes were bought, and Afremov was forced to create paintings that would sell. Thankfully, he discovered eBay and the ability to sell his painting online. Luckily for him, his paintings were extremely popular and sold very well. This demand for his paintings that came directly from consumers allowed Afremov to paint freely the emotions he felt without the constraint of a selective gallery. This type of artistic freedom is not attainable with Hollywood movies, who must sell the story in order to make money. This is why Afremov’s painting is one of the rawest performances of the original Romeo and Juliet text. Afremov channeled the emotions invoked by the story directly onto a blank canvas and ended with a colorful, impressionistic-esque interpretation of two lovers surrounded by overwhelming feelings of both love and hopelessness. A performance is not simply a play or a film, but it includes the act of taking words on a page and morphing them by one’s own means into that holds artistic merit (at least to its creator). Phillip Auslander argues that (theatrical) performance is art, but I argue that art is performance; it is a process that changes one text into one entirely different, with its own expression of importance.
Afremov’s painting is just as visual as Baz Luhrmann’s film, though it is a stationary snapshot of two lovers in the midst of an embrace amongst the family turmoil (portrayed by the wild mix of bright and dark lines in the background). It employs vibrant colors and movement by wispy brushstrokes to capture the viewer’s attention, just like its film counterpart. Someone can look at that painting and feel the emotion that Shakespeare’s words expressed even if they cannot read, and Afremov created a text that is entirely his own representation of Romeo and Juliet.
Below is a picture of the words “I baked a cupcake.” These words represent Shakespeare’s original text. It includes action, the reader knows something is happening and can easily picture it taking place, but it is of his or her own imagination, and will vary with each brain. The performance of this sentence, me actually baking cupcakes (as pictured below) is Baz Luhrmann’s film: an actual acting out of the words he read on the page. Again, this varies with each person who acts it out; the way I baked cupcakes is not the same way any other person would, though they would follow similar lines. And the product of the performance, the cupcake itself, is the artwork by Leonid Afremov. It includes bright colors, and represents my interpretation of what a cupcake should look like, the ingredients that went into it and how I presented them once baked. How you enjoy the cupcake, now that is your experience, which varies upon the person and their individual tastes, as is experiencing the movie or artwork.
Auslander, Philip. “Performance: Pt. 1. Identity and the Self.” Google Books. Routledge. Web. 01 May 2012. <http://books.google.co.uk/books/>
Best, Michael. “The Text of Performance and the Performance of Text in the Electr.” Computers and the Humanities. 3rd ed. Vol. 36. New York: Springer, 2002. 269-82. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2012. <http://www.jstor.org>.
Boose, Lynda E., and Richard Burt. Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Worthen, William B. Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.