Sunday, 21 February 2010

Romeo and Juliet: Zeffirelli's passion

I adored Romeo and Juliet (Zeffirelli 1968) when I saw it all those years ago.
In fact when I watched it last night (2010) on DVD I realised I must have seen it several times as many of the scenes were so familiar. But I hadn't seen it again for at least 30 years so I came to it with fresh eyes.

When I first saw it I was young and passionately swept up in the two lovers, so beautiful, so sexual, so irresistible.
This time I still reverberated to their love, but the most powerful impact was the gangs of idle, dangerous young noblemen. They spread across the screen. They appeared very soon as the film opened, and recurred with mounting violence.

Discussing it afterwards with my husband this problem of young male violence was, we agreed, central to the purpose of the play. It was also clear to a critical eye, that the Prince was weak. For all his pomp, his curvetting about on his lordly horse, his blaring voice making threats, he does nothing effective to control the violence.
This we thought was partly because the English view of Renaissance Italy at the time was just that: violent, colourful and treacherous.

But Shakespeare was also a Tudor writer and the Tudor dynasty derived their stability from the people's deep aversion to any return to civil war, feuding or internal violence. Shakespeare was at the time of writing Romeo and Juliet, the Queen's loyal man. So his play supported the conservative view that a strong "prince" (monarch) was better than the dangers of violent division. Better Elizabeth's strength, even though it meant a near-dictatorship – secret police, torture and disappearances. The alternative was riot in the streets, and widespread bloodshed as in the Wars of the Roses.

So I do not agree with this reviewer Dennis Grunes that the theme of anti-violence is not sustained by Zeffirelli. It was to me overwhelmingly clear.
The review has more justice in accusing Zeffirelli of sugarcoating Romeo. Yes he is a flowerchild but I see this as the natural view in 1968, not necessarily a crass exploitation of youth culture by Zeffirelli. That WAS the icon of our times back then.
I was interested that Romeo's killing of Juliet's other suitor was excised. But the adjustment to Romeo's conflict with Thibault more than balances this out, as Romeo's savagery is quite obvious.

Like this reviewer Dennis Grunes I do not share the dominant view that Zeffirelli portrayed his youngsters as in rebellion against "the establisment" or "the system." Certainly they were horrified at the arranged marriage proposal, but Juliet before falling in love with Romeo is not averse to it in her family’s plans for her future. It is not the adults' arrangement as a custom the lovers’ reject, but simply Juliet's marriage to anyone else but Romeo.

In this they stand centrally in the tradition of Romance which opposes arranged marriage in the individual case of a heroine and hero, but not necessarily as an institution. (If an arrangement is carefully made and allows the pair to meet and be attracted, Romance would not object.)

But there is nonetheless some exploitation in the film. Lawrence Whiting has spoken on record as objecting to the dawn bed scene. I recall Olivia Hussay at the time speaking unhappily about it too which sounded to me as if Zeffirelli pushed them into it. Certainly the quick flash of Olivia's nipples seems crude and unnecessary, actually startling and distracting; as does the camera focus on Leonard's bottom. But if these items had been left out I think a scene of sexuality and nakedness, enfolded in a soft linen draped sanctuary bed, fits very well with the passionate innocence of the lovers.

As a detail I liked the Capulet parental marriage strain. It was a deft use of cinema imagery to amplify the text. It enriched the drama without overloading it with subplot.
Another detail I liked was the excellent costumes together with the actors' seeming habitual comfort in them. That is quite rare in a historical film where actors often look most uncomfortable! Olivia Hussay has mentioned that she was tightly laced and very hot in the Italian summer.
Yet another praiseworthy item was a graceful and believable interpretation of mediaeval dances. Thee whole atmosphere of the ball was well realised with very human anxiety by Lady Capulet as organiser, the excitement of the marraccas handed out etc.

The reviewer says things "just happen" such as the Friar's message arriving too slowly to tell Romeo what is going on so he will know Juliet is not really dead. But the written play, preferred by the reviewer, has a plague intervene to prevent the message arriving. I do not see how a plague is less random than a slow donkey. Both act as the accidental but natural agencies of a merciless Fate.

Mercutio curses "both your houses" - with plague and the link to what pivots the tragedy is therefore lost. It was Zeffirelli's choice to leave out any supernatural consequences but I think this works well. Mercutio's curse is a distraction and a muddling of the doom that develops from the violence of those dangerously feuding, idle young men. This is the dire warning of the play which a curse would obscure, as if the ultimate tragedy of the lovers’ death happened only because Mercutio drew down magic on them. Instead Zeffirelly leaves the purity of violence as the cause of doom.

Over all I found the key theme to be a beautification AND a strong warning against passionate impulse. Again and again the young people react without thoughtfulness, with abandon and passion.
Boys set up a fight for the hell of it then feel, significantly, horrified to see that they have caused a death. They play, and playtime turns lethal, still a theme today.
The lovers yearn together, embracing as they explicitly throw aside the danger they run if found together.
Romeo bounds off to hunt Thibault down in an excess of fury, never thinking what this might do to his chances with Juliet.
Juliet, though slightly more controlled than Romeo as she holds out for marriage, pushes him to arrange a secret marriage with no thought for how this could work out.
Later when the Friar offers her a dangerous drug she instantly reaches for it in urgent passion for an impulsive solution.
I did like the reviewer’s point very much that the Friar too is impulsively childlike. He takes almost no time to reflect: he glances at his herbs and in seconds plunges the child Juliet into a harebrained scheme. Later when it has gione wrong he runs away like a small child, wailing.
Shakespeare was perhaps plugging into the Elizabethan ideology of Catholics as no fit priestly guides.

In sum Zeffirelli offers us both the beauty of passion and its ugliness.
The film is lush, vivid with throbbing reds and golds within and luxuriant gardens without. Olivia's sweeping hair and rich curves beside Leonard's winsome body evoke the beauty of passionate sexuality. The young men fight in the streets with faces alight with excited playfulness, alive in the moment, and nothing else.

But young men die of their delight. Sso do the lovers. Agony as the price of passion is shown as a warning. The Prince, symbolic as the head/ Head of State, is weak, unable to control the passions at war in the body politic.
Nonetheless although this is all there, where Romeo and Juliet is flawed is in the absence of a rational voice to contrast a cooler point of view. The portrait of passion is too finely balanced in its light and dark, so much so that it is easy to be swept up, as I once was, in the glory of it, and even include the death scenes in that glory. They died young but lived fully is a poisonous creed. Why not live longer and live even more fully?

Shakespeare might have written within the Greek tradition that honoured restraint and self control. The Symposium, examining Love, held romantic love up to ridicule.
But if so, if passion is to be seen as the exquisitely bottled poison it can be, the play, and the much later film, needed a commentary or cautionary character to put the other point of view: that caution, sober judgement, is as necessary to the good life as waves of passion.
Living without either reduces us to being less than human.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Bronze Age shipwreck (Salcombe Devon)

A Bronze Age shipwreck has been discovered near Salcombe, Devon. It appears to have been carrying tin and copper as part of an international trading network. Dated to 900BCE this is a key archaeological discovery by the SW Maritime Archaeological Group, now being assessed at Oxford.

Fascinating - but yet again the dominant influence of sea and rivers in the shaping of early cultures is distorted. In this case we have experts saying wow! we need to recognise that people were boating around really quite early.
From what I've read the structure of the ship is based on generalised guesswork as nothing has yet been brought up of the actual ship.

The guesswork suggests a prehistoric canoe or curragh, of lightweight wooden construction. Paddles are mentioned but not sails. But even quite a narrow boat (estimated at 40ft long and 6ft wide) would have had at least small sails. There's no way it could have crossed from France purely on musclepower: well it could have but it would have needed a lot more than 15 sailors to provide power. Why do it with wind to help?

The issue that really annoys me is how experts speak of a maritime or water based trade network as if this is such a weird idea.

Land based travel networks are an anachronism when looking at ancient or indeed early history. Until the invention of railways only properly in use about 160 yrs ago, land travel was slow, expensive and risky. Narrow lumpy tracks, with trees on each side to conceal robbers were extremely inefficient. A few empires with great effort kept roads open cutting back on undergrowth to each side. But this was in recorded history, and even then exceptional.

The travel of choice would have been water, which was fast (under sail) and in skilled hands relatively risk free.

Our whole idea of geography is skewed by modern land travel. Cultures spread along coasts and river banks, with other cultures of a very different type clustered inland. A powerful example of water based culture is the Celtic Crescent which stretches from the Hebrides across Ireland and Wales, Cornwall, north west France, around the coast of Spain and into north Africa and southern France.

In these regions we find common language roots, common legends, similar music/ instruments, and shared philosophy e.g. not representing the gods in art.

Curraghs/ coracles were tough boats and coastal peoples would have early got skilled at navigation. Start thinking of the sea and large rivers as like modern motorways and cultural boundaries start to look very different.