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Passion is not Destruction: A Reflection on Romeo & Juliet and my own tragic love stories

A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo & Juliet" (1986)

One thing I keep relearning about Shakespeare is that everything becomes crystal clear when his words are spoken aloud and with full conviction, as he had designed them. He did write with an actor’s experience under his belt, and thus orchestrated scenes with an actor’s sensitivity to the power of musical words and charged cadences. It’s also become crystal clear that, after a recent viewing of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) and National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet (2021), the most exceptional performances of Shakespeare aren’t so much bound by his verses as much as they are eager to use them as the base from which to say something more.

Having watched both productions during a prolonged pandemic, I gather that this something more has to do with affirming the infantilized, undermined, and gaslit generation of doomed lovers, to which I currently belong. I could be overreaching, or I could simply be allowing Shakespeare to do what he’s always done: disrupt long held certainties and dominant narratives that have led to dreadful, disastrous outcomes. With the same stubbornness of Romeo and Juliet’s love, I will fully lean into the latter. I believe that when put side by side, Zeffirelli and National Theatre’s versions make a case for unmitigated juvenile love–not as a cautionary tale against passion, but against those who sow violence in trying so hard to suppress it.

In other words, my renewed appreciation for the love story of Romeo and Juliet, the two film adaptations in question, and Shakespeare himself go hand in hand with my appreciation for my own youthful passions–the ones that I’m in danger of losing everyday as the pandemic drags on. As a young Filipino artist, I harbor an intense love for many things that seem to be eroding, or easier not to love. I’m a survivor of sexual violence in an industry that still panders to pedophilic directors and struggles under a culture of impunity. I’m a new probinsyana playwright in a country whose theatres have only reopened to a limited network of established Manila-based practitioners. I’m an avid birdwatcher whose favorite bird havens have been burned down in favor of foreign mining operations. I carry so many tragic love stories within me, it’s almost sensible to not love or dream at all.

That is, until I hear the pure and earnest words that Romeo and Juliet exchange on the balcony. I watch them negotiate the depths and simultaneous dangers of their love. I feel the thrill of their first touch and their hunger for the next one. I envy their courage to abandon what they know for what they feel. I remember that I used to be this careless and unfazed, impatient to put everything on the line and embrace intimately whatever returns to me. I get to imagine myself in their likeness–someone who, not too long ago, harbored a passion so sinfully sweet and sacred that suffering for it felt right.

Across all renditions of Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen, these two particular ones have been the most affective in this regard. By trying to articulate the similarities and differences I saw in them, I hope to also arrive at a better understanding of what I value as a storyteller–who I am in the face of tragedy and how I wish to continue loving in spite of it.

I begin with the similarities. I mentioned earlier that Shakespeare is generous with meaning to anyone who reads him aloud with fervor. As proven by both the National Theatre 2021 staging and Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, the Bard’s poetic writing is not merely a highbrow embellishment as conventionally perceived, but friendly clues to what is being unraveled in the work. Jessie Buckley and Olivia Hussey both explode in tears when Juliet’s lines explode with intense syllabication (“Ay, madam, from the reach of these my hands/ Would none but I might venge my cousin's death!”). Meanwhile as Romeo nurses his heartbreak from Rosaline (“S/a/d hours s/ee/m l/o/ng . . .”), Josh O’Connor and Leonard Whiting’s voices soften and their vowels elongate. Both adaptations are clearly heralded by actors who uplift the craft behind Shakespeare’s rhyme and meter because the performances make the lines experiential and emotional, not intellectual. This talent makes for an even more enriching experience when the screenwriters take liberties with the original text–drawing more dramatic tension from quiet and prolonged close-ups in the place of lengthy dialogue.

At this point, I’m led to mention the admirable use of camerawork and cinematography in both adaptations. Something about the largeness of Shakespearean tragedies are not often agreeable on the intimacy of a small screen, but directors Zeffirelli (1968) and Simon Godwin (2021) both managed to find an impressive balance between the theatrical and cinematic. For one, Zeffirelli made use of several sunlit (almost overexposed) shots of Italy to complement the growing volatility and impatience of the characters under external and internal heat. Godwin, in collaboration with Director of Photography Tim Sidell, displayed a similar understanding of vivid visuals to illuminate the internal conditions of the characters–perhaps seen best in the masquerade party where O’Connor’s Romeo and Buckley’s Juliet first meet. Both Zeffirelli and Godwin make use of the delicate lighting known to film and particularly poised blocking known to theatre. Both are great examples of two mediums working together to produce unexpected effects to an otherwise very familiar story.

Where I draw the first difference is the motive behind Godwin’s use of filmmaking language. The shots in the National Theatre adaptation are interspersed with what seems to be rehearsal footage. Actors are visibly acting in rehearsal-friendly attire, scripts in hand and backstage equipment in motion behind them. The romance unfolds in the not-so-romantic scenery of stage contraptions and unfurnished set pieces, drawing attention to the abandoned state of the theater building as if it were another major character in the tragic love story. I like to think of these choices as a testament to love for theatre itself, especially in the knowledge that this staging was reconceived (from fully-fledged theatrical production to filmed theatre) because of the pandemic.

It isn’t difficult to draw the parallels between the pursuit of this lockdown staging and my own pursuit of art despite all of its disenchanting realities. I extend this to speak of a volunteer’s pursuit of their advocacy despite the promise of frustration and heartbreak, or a voter’s pursuit of principled governance despite all the deeply entrenched mechanisms that work hard against it.

Not so different from all this, is the shared determination of Romeo and Juliet to join hands in death over separation from each other. There is a passion here that is easy to dismiss as idealistic and precarious, but if the alternatives are dividedness or hate, I would like to make the choice that the younger and less fearful me would make.

That is what I saw Zeffirelli’s actors Hussey and Whiting do in the 1968 film, partly owing to their ages at the time of filming–15 and 17, respectively. They faithfully threw themselves upon each other, screeched and howled, and leaned into the love-greed that trained actors or experienced lovers would have shied away from. If the National Theatre showed unrestrained passion in its self-referential cuts, Zeffirelli’s film did so in its straightforward and unbridled display of teenage naivete. In both renditions (more so in the 2021 film because of its foreshadowing shots) the tragedy is recognized as inevitable, but they proceed to tell the story at full throttle anyway. This makes the act of telling an act of resistance in itself. I relearned from Romeo and Juliet that everything becomes crystal clear when the words are spoken aloud and with conviction, but I learned that first as a child with wilder, more audacious passions.

I hope that child continues to find me.


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