How the two directors (Baz Luhrmann and Zefferelli) convey the opening of Romeo and Juliet

“Romeo and Juliet” is a tragic love story on a background of hatred and animosity. It is definitely one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays, arguably the most well known. The fact that this play is so well known has presented problems to directors who wanted to try and stage or film “Romeo and Juliet” – there is more pressure on them to create something unique and original. The challenge has inspired several directors. Among these directors are Baz Luhrmann and Zefferelli, who both felt motivated enough by this play to turn it into a film. Some aspects of the two resulting creations were very similar, but in other ways very dissimilar, and the two directors approached their task in very different ways – and this is what I want to study.The opening of a play is very important. It makes the reader decide whether he or she wants to read on, gives us our first impressions, and most importantly, it introduces the characters and sets the scene for the rest of the play. So, when writing the opening of “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare takes care of all these points effectively. Shakespeare’s main aims in this opening are evidently to build up tension and ambience, present the reader with an atmosphere of animosity and hatred against which Romeo and Juliet’s love is doomed to fail.I think that he is very successful in this. Scene 1 begins with servants from the rivalling families fighting, which seems more trivial and vaguely comical. But when some of the higher status characters enter the fight becomes more ominous and menacing. Tybalt is introduced at this point, a very sinister character, speaking out against peace – “What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word, As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee,” changing the atmosphere completely, adding a threatening note – he seems to be the real aggressor.This sudden change of mood is effective in building up tension. As even the masters of the houses try to enter the fray, we see that the enmity between the two families is widespread and complete, from the servants to the masters. The Prince of Verona presents an ultimatum – he is sick and tired of the violence in his city, and says that the people of Verona must not fight – if they do so they forfeit their lives. We now know that something will happen against this ultimatum, building up the suspense even more. Of course something does happen against the ultimatum, and people do pay the price with their lives. Romeo dies, Mercutio is killed and Tybalt is killed. Finally the innocent Juliet is sacrificed by cruel irony.When we are introduced to Romeo he is moping and miserable, speaking in a hyperbolic manner of the devastating effects of love, but he is referring to the game of flirtation rather than true love. The irony of this will become apparent when he genuinely falls in love with catastrophic results. His love contrasts the background of hatred so it is evident that the love will not survive.It is very interesting to look at how the two directors went about creating the opening mood of the play. The opening of “Romeo and Juliet” sets the scene for the rest of the play, giving us the atmosphere and background that is a continuous theme throughout the play. So how to tackle it is therefore very important for any director trying to create a film based on “Romeo and Juliet.” The play requires a build up of the tense ambience right from the start. Shakespeare manages this with words – the directors also have to use imagery and visual effects, music, etc… Zefferelli has set his film in the 16th century in Verona, in period. The costumes, language and sword fighting were all deeply reminiscent to the period.Luhrmann’s interpretation is more modern. He updated the play, made it much more relevant to this day and age and therefore to teenagers. Romeo and Juliet is a timeless love story, some teenagers wouldn’t enjoy the play, not being able to relate to it and perhaps finding the language confusing. But although Luhrmann sticks to the original dialogue it is made very understandable by the more modern context, the useful visuals, and even the way in which the words are spoken. These differences alter their approach considerably.Both films begin, of course, with the prologue. But how they portray it is very different. Zefferelli begins with a prologue spoken over the scenery, a view of Verona using a high-angle shot. The prologue is spoken by a gentle voice with quite relaxing music playing in the background. The music also sounds as if it is in period. The whole atmosphere created is calm and relaxed. Luhrmann’s prologue is quite a contrast. He has the prologue read out twice. First it is read by a newsreader, which has a double effect. It shows us that the play has been modernised right from the beginning (they have television), and it shows us that the fight between the Montagues and the Capulets is of great importance (and therefore that the Montagues and the Capulets are important) or they wouldn’t be on the news. There is an impressive editing sequence, a frenzy of different shots of Montague and Capulet buildings, words from the prologue, etc, adding to the state of confusion. The main things Luhrmann is trying to show right from the start is status and background, two of the most important things to be established at the beginning of this play.The scene is then set in both interpretations. Zefferelli contrasts his slow prologue with a busy marketplace full of activity and noise. The costumes worn by the many bustling people are gaudy and contrasting. The servants of one family are dressed in red and yellow, and the other in green, so they are clearly distinguishable from one another. He uses the contrast between the servants petty quarrelling and the intensified atmosphere as the higher status characters enter. When the fighting begins there is instant and utter confusion. There is a long shot of the whole marketplace full of people are fighting frantically in a whirl of colours. Although this shows the hatred in Verona and how a quarrel between the two houses can spring from nothing, the true atmosphere of animosity does not take hold until we meet Tybalt (as Shakespeare seemed to intend). When we first see him it is in a close up, and he is made to seem very different from everyone else. His clothes are orange, not read and yellow or green, and even his voice is deeper. A chiming clock in the background and the sound of shouting and screaming heightens the intensity of the scene.Luhrmann is trying to achieve the same effects as Zefferelli but does not use the same techniques. He has to adapt all this to modern day. The characters’ high status has been established by corporate power – Montague and Capulet written on huge office blocks, etc. Status is shown by money rather than nobility – this is more relevant to how things are nowadays. Despite his modernisation Luhrmann has stayed very true to Shakespeare’s play in many ways. The dialogue is just as close to the original as Zefferelli’s, if not closer, and he has interpreted the religion into his film successfully.Although Romeo and Juliet won’t have the same problems with the Church as they did in Shakespeare’s version (then the Church was very tied up with the law, now we tend to be quite secular) Luhrmann’s film includes a lot of iconography: crucifixes, sacred hearts and religious statues to name a few. In Zefferelli’s version we are not made aware of religion, but assume that Verona would be a very religious place at that time. Luhrmann’s beginning is very hectic and chaotic, like Zefferelli’s, but to achieve this effect as well as using shouting and bright colours he uses sound effects with wild and jerky editing sequences and a similar pace.To distinguish the difference between the two gangs Luhrmann uses clothing, like Zefferelli, and also their manner. The Capulets are dressed smartly in suits and waistcoats and look a little like cowboys. The Montagues are skinheads wearing Hawaiian shirts and have many piercings and big flashy cars. Both groups seem rich but they evidently use their money differently. While the Capulets seem more adult and grown up in their smart attire, the Montagues appear more boyish in sloppy but “cool” clothes. At first there is much confusion, the Montagues driving around crazily. The aggression and fighting begins and this is also wild and disjointed. Wild music is also played to enhance the mood. It is menacing but not to the extent it becomes when Tybalt enters.His entrance is emphasises strongly. The music changes to an eerie tune, reminiscent of a Western. The signs around him move nerve-rackingly and then everything stops, or at least slows down around him. You can hear a faint wind blow, also reminiscent of a Western. The manner in which Tybalt moves is catlike, sinister – perhaps Luhrmann is trying to portray Tybalt as the Prince of Cats, as he is referred to in the play. He stands out even without all these effects. He has a metal heel, which he uses to dramatically grind a cigarette under as he enters.By the way the camera follows the cigarette to the ground in the comparative silence we can tell that Tybalt is an important character, While the others are shooting uncontrollably and rowdily, he seems cold and devious with a slight smirk, as if he really enjoys what he is doing. We see his gun from his viewpoint and it has a marking device. His gun seems to represent his personality and fighting style, calculating and precise. As they are not using swords as the original Luhrmann must have used the marking device and careful way Tybalt shoots to replace his quick and clever sword movements described in the original play. Then the moment is over, a fire starts, and the previous music returns along with the confusion.Next we see how the two directors cope with the concept of the Prince and his ultimatum. Zefferelli has opted for a traditional version – the Prince is a traditional figure of authority riding a white horse. He stays on the horse during the speech, and his raised height is used as a sign of higher status. Luhrmann, on the other hand, has again modernised the idea and turned the Prince into a black helicopter circling the area.Luhrmann shows the higher status of the Montague and Capulet heads of houses by putting them in big cars representing limousines – Montague also wears a dinner jacket. The number plates say “Montague,” and “Capulet,” so we have no confusion about who they are. I think Zefferelli puts less emphasis on this, but the characters seem to be introduced in order of importance and the heads of houses appear last (apart from Romeo and Juliet of course!)Finally we have the introduction of Romeo. Here the directors’ approaches are very similar indeed. Both Zefferelli and Luhrmann have Romeo sitting alone, looking reflective and moping before his friend finds him. In Zefferelli’s version, Romeo is under and then at the side of a bridge away from the noise of the marketplace. In Luhrmann’s version Romeo sits to the backdrop of a beautiful sunset and bridge, with a melancholy harmony playing in the background – this seems to be like a theme tune for Romeo. He casts a dark silhouette against the backdrop, again playing on his mood of despair and darkness.While the others dress generally more colourfully Romeo is dressed in simple black and white. Both versions show him to be a young, handsome man who for some reason is alone and evidently melancholy and unhappy. Before seeing Romeo in Luhrmann’s version we see a view of the city which is quite sordid and unpleasant. We are shown a woman who seems to be a prostitute, and a man with an enormous stomach bulging over his trousers and a depressed expression. The general impression is seedy and squalid. Then we are shown Romeo – no wonder he is depressed, and what a background for young love, we think.I think that both directors were inspired by this play – and with good reason – and each wanted to interpret it their way and somehow make it their own. They used very different methods, Zefferelli choosing to make a traditional film in period, giving a classical interpretation as close as possible to how it would actually have “happened”, and Luhrmann preferring to update the play, drawing in a younger audience and making it something today’s teenagers could better relate to. This is a play that could withstand any number of interpretations and re-interpretations. You cannot really say that one of these interpretations is “better” than the other because they are so different, but I do think that both directors succeeded awesomely in what they set out to do.

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