Modern audiences may struggle to understand the animosity that underpins the family feud at the heart of Romeo and Juliet, but a new staging by Studio 58 makes the forbidden love aspect a bit more contemporary. Romeo and Juliet are both women.
There’s another twist. While staying true to an abridged version of the Bard’s script (only pronouns have been changed, and Juliet’s age, 14, omitted), the action now takes place in 1965 at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s New York studio and counter-culture hub.
Warhol was out and hung out with all kinds of people, says the play’s director, Anita Rochon. He created a scene where it was possible to live openly at least inside The Factory, but “mainstream society would have had a different attitude.”
Recasting Romeo and Juliet as lesbians makes their forbidden love more understandable to a contemporary audience, suggest the play’s lead actors.
“I find it very difficult to understand the whole family feuding situation,” says Adelleh Furseth, who plays Juliet. “That was probably something that an Elizabethan audience could have swallowed a little easier. Seeing this lesbian relationship added on to the family feuding created more of a clear conflict I think.”
“It definitely raises the stakes more,” agrees Camille Legg, who plays Romeo. “In New York it was actually illegal at this time, homosexuality. I think it brings in that extra layer of intensity and the stakes rise even higher. This is even more so forbidden love.”
“In many ways, Romeo and Juliet have become an icon of young love, of young lovers,” Rochon says. “For me, there were really interesting parallels in there and I tried to play with those.”
While it is sometimes challenging for modern audiences to connect with Shakespeare, Rochon thinks her staging feels relevant and timely.
“It doesn’t even feel like it’s ’65, it feels like it’s right now,” she says. “The discovery of love, the understanding of what that feels like . . . feels incredibly vital and incredibly timeless, I would say. The way that Juliet’s parents talk to her sounds very familiar to the conversations that I had with my parents as a teenager.”
For Furseth and Legg, who acted together at Kitsilano Secondary School before entering Studio 58, the love story at the heart of Romeo and Juliet remains universal.
“Everyone’s had their first love, everyone’s felt completely blinded by it, everyone’s in some ways been swept up by it,” Furseth says.
“It’s so human,” Legg says. “What people experienced hundreds of years ago we still experience today.”