Paterson Joseph, an actor who grew up in one of London’s gritty, inner-city neighborhoods, challenges himself to bring Shakespeare back to the ‘hood by directing a high-quality, West End production of Romeo and Juliet using kids off the streets as actors. He gives himself a month to accomplish the entire task.
My Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet with Baz Luhrmann is a 2004 PBS documentary that follows Paterson through the whole process, from casting through final performance. Baz Luhrmann provides long-distance advice and moral support from Australia via videoconferencing (pre-Skype, which appears very clunky now!). Paterson deals with enormous challenges as he helps cast members learn lines (many of the actors are immigrants), gain confidence in their ability to act, their ability to commit to something like this, to attend practices, pay attention, try hard, see it through to completion… every bit of it is new for all of them, including Paterson himself, who has never directed a play before.
I thought the story was very touching… how Paterson was able to really reach these kids and demonstrate for them the relevance of Shakespeare in their lives. The girl playing Juliet is a shy Afghan refugee who begins rehearsals completely unable to imagine herself kissing a man at all, let alone in front of an audience. Paterson helps her gain confidence and bring emotion into her part and her final performance is lovely! The boy playing Mercutio identifies fully with the part and is able to really project the meaning of Mercutio’s words, including the difficult Queen Mab speech. Romeo is so taken with his experience that he decides to pursue an acting career!
I really disliked Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes. In this documentary, in addition to serving as Paterson’s long-distance mentor, Luhrmann also is interviewed extensively and serves as the resident expert on directing Shakespeare and teasing out Shakespeare’s relevance in the modern world. I found him somewhat distracting and pretentious much of the time, as he’s interviewed from his enormous, swank Sydney mansion against a Wall of Fame in honor of himself with posters from the film and lots of candles everywhere. But getting past my prejudice, I think he does sometimes add interesting insights into working with Shakespeare with modern audiences.
I like this film a lot. I worried with Paterson about whether he had bitten off more than he could chew. I empathized with Juliet about whether she could really pull off this whole acting thing. I enjoyed watching them all learn to emote physically — Paterson has them do exercises where they express joy, pain, sadness and other emotions at different levels on a scale from 1 to 10. It was riveting hearing from Romeo about his actual stabbing in a street fight and what this brought to his understanding of the fight scenes in the play. I felt sad that the girl playing the Nurse just did not have it in her and had to be replaced days before opening night. I loved watching the actors tour the Globe Theatre and imagine themselves there with the Bard. And finally, I was so happy for them, as they performed the play admirably to their West End audience. Very nicely done!
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