Romeo and Juliet gets a fresh look at Prague’s Summer Shakespeare Festival

A new staging focuses on the themes that are still relevant to people today rather than presenting it as a theatrical museum piece.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 17.08.2023 14:00:00 (updated on 17.08.2023) Reading time: 4 minutes

For the past several years, the Summer Shakespeare Festival has included one production in English among the otherwise Czech-language shows. This year’s offering is the classic love story Romeo and Juliet, presented on Aug.19 in the courtyard of Liechtenstein Palace on Malostranské náměstí.

The new staging is by Guy Roberts, the artistic director Prague Shakespeare Company. He said that while Romeo and Juliet is a great love story, it is so embedded in Western culture that it can lose its impact. He cited two definitive films that have helped to form people’s expectations: Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 one set in Renaissance Italy and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 visionary modern take.

“The question to me seems how to bridge these two sensibilities – how to retain the beauty and romance associated with our expectations of the play and yet still make the language and story accessible to a modern audience,” Roberts said, adding that people don’t want to feet they are seeing a museum piece. In addition to directing, Roberts also appears as Mercutio.

“I am quite convinced that anyone who actually lived hundreds of years ago didn’t feel like they were antiquated. They lived in the present – in the Now! And that is where our play takes place. We have not limited ourselves to the strict ideals of Renaissance Italy, nor have we manipulated the text to conform to some modern philosophical stance on men and women and the realities or illusions of love. We tried to approach the text cleanly and without preconceived ideas. Suddenly by doing this, we began to shape the production, letting our artists' own instinctual responses create our Verona,” he said.

Relevant messages for today

During the process, the troupe found new meanings to bridge the ancient and the modern such as husbands and wives more concerned with work and social prestige than their families, young adults who felt disenfranchised, lonely, and isolated, parents who don’t really know how to be parents, friends who don’t really know how to be friends, religious and moral authorities who in trying to help only make things worse, and a deeply rooted fear, aggression, discontent and rage driving almost everyone.

“However in the midst of all this hatred and anger, at the center of the entire play is love – the kind of life-changing, soul-transforming love that we all dream of but perhaps never believe we will really find. And that’s the reason to do Romeo and Juliet because all of us still hopefully believe in love,” Roberts said.

Jessica Boone, who plays Juliet, said she was excited to bring the experience she now has as an actor and as a woman to a role that she played previously. “What strikes me, in particular, this time around are all the metaphors about liberty and freedom and how distinctly different the rules and social constructs are for females vs. males. Those differences still resonate,” she said.

“Juliet is talked about, planned for, and told what to do and how to think by so many of the elders. She is grasping for hope and for help to have some agency in so many scenes that end with her advisors ultimately letting her down,” she added.

Taylor Napier, who plays Romeo, said that although the play is a tragedy, the earnest quality that both lead characters have is endearing and something he wishes we could have more of today. “The way they throw themselves into the romance and don't stop to think for a second, while maybe foolish, is admirable,” he said.

“I think the lesson to be taken from Romeo and Juliet isn't the dangers of impulsive youth. It's the societies, expectations, feuds, and rules we build around pure love that make it impossible to sustain. Romeo loves with abandon, no matter the cost, which is both a wonderful and terrible place to live. That makes him an incredible character to play,” he added.

Gregory Gudgeon, who plays the Friar, says his character means well but is overruled by fortune. “Romeo and Juliet is even a funny play, until someone gets killed and the tragedy takes over. Young lives get sacrificed for their elders' choices. When will we learn? It's a demanding role, and exciting to be on a Prague stage with a diverse and talented cast. I'm excited too to be directed by Guy Roberts, who has actor's instincts, and takes the stage as an electrifying Mercutio!” Gudgeon said.

A highly experienced cast

All of the main cast has experience not only from the stage but also from films and series shot in Prague. Roberts, Boone, and Napier all appear in the fantasy series The Wheel of Time. Roberts had a role as a villain in the historical film Medieval and appeared in the thriller series Hanna.

Roberts also staged the opera sequences in the costume drama Chevalier, while Boone appeared in the same film as an opera star. Boone’s other credits include the feature films Unlocked and Puerto Ricans In Paris, and the series Shadowplay, Carnival Row, Das Boot, and Crossing Lines. She has a large following among anime fans for her voice work.

Napier’s screen credits include the series Hanna. He is also also a writer; his award-winning short film Atacama has been seen in festivals around the world. Gudgeon is known for his appearances with the Royal Shakespeare Company and other troupes in the UK. His film and TV work includes All Quiet on the Western Front, Carnival Row, A Small Light, Genius: Einstein, Das Boot, and Interlude In Prague. He will be in the upcoming remake of The Crow.

Romeo and Juliet is presented by the Prague Shakespeare Company in association with the Summer Shakespeare Festival. The play is sponsored in part by the Kansas City Theater League and the Shakespeare Theatre Association.

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