Celebrating 50 years of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare Magazine Editor Pat Reid writes about growing up and growing old with a Shakespearean cinematic masterpiece – and its eternally youthful stars, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.

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“But you sound just like Leonard!” exclaims the voice at the end of the telephone. “Exactly like him, it’s uncanny!”The voice that’s saying this is Olivia Hussey’s. The voice that she’s saying it about is mine. Fifty years ago, when she was just 15, Olivia starred as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Leonard to whom she refers is Leonard Whiting, then 17, her co-star who played Romeo. It’s all documented in her recent book The Girl on the Balcony. To have my voice compared to Leonard’s is a major compliment. I want to respond with a witty quip like “I bet you say that to all the Romeos…” – but there’s an interview to do.

I first saw Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet when I was around the age Olivia was when she starred in it. My relationship with the film, and with the play it’s based on (and with the characters in it) has certainly evolved over the passing decades. The first time I saw it, in a mid-’80s classroom of an all-boys school, it was the sword fights that excited me most, to be honest. Having said that, Olivia’s radiant vivacity as Juliet, and the emotional rush of her love affair with Leonard’s sensitive-yet-athletic Romeo, must have seemed a kind of dream version of what life would surely hold in store.

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When I saw it again in my mid-twenties I was taken aback by how deliriously romantic it all was. The film is both opulent and gritty, a bacchanalian feast of the screen. I was now much older than Olivia’s Juliet, but still far too young to understand what was really going on in the film.​In my early forties I became both a father for the first time, and a born again Shakespearean. This is when Romeo and Juliet becomes every parent’s worst nightmare. You do everything you can to bring your kids up right, and they go and fall madly in love – and end up dead. Yes, it’s funny when I put it like that, but really it’s terrifying.

Watching the film in middle age, I also noticed for the first time how Shakespeare’s words were bursting with an overwhelming beauty that was matched note for note by Nino Rota’s musical score – one of the all-time great movie soundtracks.

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I noticed other things too. How Lady Capulet (played by Natasha Parry) was not in fact an evil old bag, but a dignified, concerned and rather beautiful young mother. At this point I could hardly fail to see how Romeo and Juliet was absolutely crammed with performances that in any other film would have been breakouts. From Pat Heywood as Juliet’s Nurse, to Michael York as an imperious, flashing-eyed Tybalt – not forgetting the demented swagger of John McEnery’s Mercutio, and Robert Stephens embodying authority as the Prince – it’s an embarrassment of riches.Finally I watched it again this year, 2018, the year that the film and myself both turn 50. Everything I’ve written above is still true, but watching the film after reading Olivia’s book puts a different light on things. Indeed, her book shines a light into all the nooks and crannies of the film.

My most recent viewing of the film took place after reading her book, but actually speaking to Olivia was a precious experience. She is a custodian of the memory of Romeo and Juliet, and the keeper of its secrets. “I’ve never told anyone that before,” she said, after sharing a detail about her famously gruelling audition process for the film, “I only just remembered it now”.

Indeed, Zeffirelli’s casting process would probably be impossible – or illegal – today, but its result was perfection. In 1960s London there were a lot of beautiful, talented young men and women. But Romeo and Juliet had to be beautiful together in the right way, a complementary beauty that made them both shine more brightly, not a situation where one cancelled the other out.

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There have been other Romeo and Juliet films before and since, of course. The 1954 version with Laurence Harvey is almost forgotten now, forever eclipsed by Zeffirelli’s ’60s supernova. The 1936 production is seen as a historical curio, with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, aged 43 and 33, far too old for the roles.Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 update, styled Romeo + Juliet, succeeded because it made itself as different as possible from Franco Zeffirelli’s. But while I’ve met countless women who fell in love with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo, I’ve yet to meet a man who fell in love with Claire Danes as Juliet. We admire her as an actress – she’s one of the few in Hollywood who can actually move her face – but we don’t want to die for her.

And a 2013 film of Romeo and Juliet cast Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld in the lead roles. They looked every bit like a Renaissance painting, but alas the chemistry was lacking – the pair seemed more like amused, conspiratorial siblings than Shakespeare’s tragic, star cross’d lovers.

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And that’s why Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is not just one of the greatest Shakespeare films ever made, it’s one of the greatest films of any kind ever made.Yes, he took liberties with Shakespeare, but you can tell it’s a film made by someone who’s in love with Shakespeare, in love with Romeo and Juliet, in love with life, and in love with love. Watch it today, or soon, to celebrate its 50th anniversary – and be sure to raise a glass to Franco, to Leonard and to Olivia. Their Romeo and Juliet is, and will always be, an intoxicating experience.

All images courtesy of Paramount. Watch out for a full interview with Olivia Hussey in the next issue of Shakespeare Magazine.

Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, the iconic stars of Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1968 Romeo and Juliet film, were reunited this week for one magical night of cinema history

Images by Jared Cowan

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On Tuesday 6th December at the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica (Los Angeles), Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey – Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet – were reunited.

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Surprisingly, this was the first time they had ever done a post-screening Q&A together. People had flown in from around the US and even as far afield as Belgium to be at this very special event. Organised by Shakespeare Lives, the British Council, the BFI and the GREAT Britain campaign, it marked the end of a memorable Shakespeare Lives year.

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Both actors spoke of their delight in making the classic 1968 film with Franco Zeffirelli, and it was obvious that both actors still have a huge amount of affection for one another, as they riffed off one another’s anecdotes.

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For many years, there has been no 35mm print of this classic film – the only Shakespeare film to have received an Academy Award. The audience on Tuesday were treated to the new digital restoration which looked and sounded amazing on the big screen.

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The audience applauded scenes as if they were watching an opera and there were two standing ovations for the much-loved stars of the film, who stayed in the auditorium to sign pictures and take selfies.

Read about the BFI’s year of Shakespeare on Film.

Even people who aren’t sure what a soliloquy is know that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is the most famous soliloquy in theatre history. There’s just one problem. It’s not actually a soliloquy.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

 

“To be or not to be…”

Spoken by the title character of Hamlet, the most famous speech in the history of theatre is 34 lines and 271 words long. Apart from providing titles for (or being quoted in) countless other plays, poems, novels, TV shows and movies, it has also appeared on posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and keyrings. It’s even been translated into Klingon (“taH pagh taHbe”). There are at least 379,000 hits on the internet for the first line alone.

This speech is many, many things. One thing it is not, however, is a soliloquy.

Maxine Peake's Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

The image of the ‘lone prince’, so endemic on the stage, duly made the transition to TV and motion pictures. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version placed Hamlet alone on a windswept tower of Elsinore. Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 version is another lone Hamlet, this time walking along the Danish shore. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film sees Hamlet alone in his father’s sepulchre. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film places Hamlet in a mirrored hall, practically alone but for Ophelia hiding out of sight. Peter Wellington’s 2003 adaptation of the speech for the series Slings & Arrows features a seated, lone Hamlet. Gregory Doran’s 2009 TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet has David Tennant’s Hamlet all alone, with Ophelia scurrying off immediately before the speech and tromping back on just as he finishes saying “Soft you now.”

New play 'Women Playing Hamlet' offers a fresh take on "To be or not to be" in 2015.

New play ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ offers a fresh take on “To be or not to be” in 2015.

Despite the entrenchment of the lone Hamlet on our cultural understanding of Hamlet, when we study the six quarto and three folio printings that comprise the original texts, we find the following: one, that the famous speech cannot be a soliloquy; two, that the entering Hamlet should know he is being spied upon; three, that Ophelia’s presence must be addressed; and, fourth and lastly, that Hamlet may be reading as he enters the scene.
My methodology does need some explanation. I believe in the primacy of the text: dramatic texts are the most important factor in creating a production. The words of a text are the skeleton of a play, and basing one’s interpretation on elements not in the text is problematic at best. Now, I’m not trying to say there is only one way of doing any play or moment from a play. I only distinguish between two kinds of performances – those that agree with the text and those that do not.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2007 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2007 Hamlet.

Soliloquies feature lone speakers, but all nine original Hamlet printings agree that Hamlet is not alone, as Ophelia is also onstage throughout the speech. Therefore, the classical understanding of “soliloquy” does not apply.
Further, the “To be or not to be” speech features none of the characteristics of Hamlet’s actual soliloquies. In those speeches, he follows a pattern – he speaks about Claudius, the late King Hamlet, and, usually, Gertrude. Hamlet does discuss his family with some other characters, but when he knows he is accompanied by potential spies, he stays away from the topic of his family. The “What a piece of work is a man” speech, delivered just after Hamlet discovers he cannot trust Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, is an elaborate deception. When Hamlet delivers his speech to appease his friends-turned-spies, he does not mention the circumstances of his father’s murder. He only mentions the King and Queen as the people to whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must report.
“I will tell you why, so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.”

Gamut Theatre's 2015 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2015 Hamlet.

Since “To be or not to be” takes place with others on stage, and since it deviates from the patterns Shakespeare established in Hamlet’s actual soliloquies, it cannot be a soliloquy. Since the speech is not a soliloquy, it cannot be staged as a soliloquy and still be faithful to the text. Text-based stagings focus on what is written. For instance, Hamlet, entering into the scene, knows he is being observed. The original printings agree that, by this moment in the play, Hamlet has discovered that his schoolmates have been dispatched by the King to spy on him. Further, all but one of the printings agree that Hamlet enters into the scene because he has been sent for by the King. The remaining printing, the First Quarto, does not mention this at all. What happens next is a strange division; all folio printings agree that the King and Polonius hide before Hamlet enters, while all quartos state they exit after Hamlet enters.

Peter O'Toole's legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

Peter O’Toole’s legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

The quarto texts allow Hamlet to see the King and his crony hide; Hamlet would clearly know he is being spied upon. In all three folio printings, the King and Polonius exit before Hamlet enters the scene. Even if a director chooses the folio option, it is still reasonable that Hamlet knows he is being spied upon. Hamlet already suspects Claudius on some level before the action of the play, as evidenced by his response to the Ghost’s news that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father: “O my prophetic soul! / Mine uncle?”
The King has just sent for Hamlet. If, as in the folios, Hamlet enters not seeing the King and Polonius, he still has another reason to be suspicious: the King is absent, but Ophelia is directly in his path.
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Let’s talk about Ophelia and the issue of the silent actor. In order to stage the scene, we must have a better understanding of Ophelia and her relationship with Hamlet. She has only appeared twice before, in scenes revolving around her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia speaks on this subject with her father, Polonius, saying her relationship with Hamlet is an honorable and affectionate one that has included every promise, save that of matrimony. Polonius dismisses this as Hamlet merely wanting to master her chaste treasure and commands her to never see Hamlet again.
When Ophelia is placed in Hamlet’s way, she is being used to provoke her boyfriend into showing why he is behaving so strangely. This is part of Polonius’ plan to discover if Hamlet is mad for his daughter’s love. Claudius accedes to the plan and, immediately before Hamlet’s entrance, describes his plan to Gertrude, that Hamlet should “affront” Ophelia.
The meaning of the word “affront” is crucial: “to put oneself in the way of so as to meet; to accost, address.” By strategically placing Ophelia onstage, Polonius and Claudius mean for her to come face to face with Hamlet so they can hear what follows between them. As a result, Ophelia could be Hamlet’s audience, either in part or in whole.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2001 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2001 Hamlet.

Before this passionate meeting, there is one more discovery to address: what Hamlet is doing as he enters the scene. The First Quarto offers a fascinating option. In it, before Hamlet enters for “To be or not to be”, the King says, “see where he comes poring upon a book.” This is similar to Gertrude’s statement in an earlier scene, “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading,” which appears in all other printings of the story. It may be the First Quarto misplaces Hamlet’s entrance, but this anomaly bears study. Hamlet does have a book in other scenes, so a Hamlet who enters reading can be textually valid. In fact, the book he reads may still exist.
Douce in 1839 and Hunter in 1845 noted that Girolamo Cardano’s 1576 book Comfort includes passages very similar to a portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“…saying, that [death] did not only remove sickness and all other griefs but… what should we accompt of death to be resembled to anything better then sleep… and to die is said to sleep.”
Compare all this talk of death, the easing of griefs, and sleeping to this famous portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”

Gamut Theatre's 2011 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2011 Hamlet.

A reading Hamlet opens up a new possibility to the speech. If Hamlet is reading about death, his speech might refer to the book. Shakespeare gives us a similar situation in Henry IV, Part One, where, examining a letter from a confederate, Hotspur reads a phrase and then makes a scathing response. If this formula were applied to Hamlet’s speech, “the question” may refer to ideas raised in the book itself. A staging using this reading can allow the prop to help explain why Hamlet is in this frame of mind.
Studying the original texts with a respect for their primacy reveals that the cherished long-established vision of Hamlet simply does not agree with the text. The options revealed by the text and its established circumstances are many and must be explored in a production. After studying the evidence, I staged the scene two different ways. In the first, Hamlet entered reading, responded to the book like Hotspur in Henry IV, and discussed the contents with Ophelia. In the second staging, I took Hamlet’s book away, allowed him to see Claudius and Polonius exit, and had him confess his dark thoughts to Ophelia.
The first staging was greatly intellectual. Hamlet mused about the ideas of death, sharing them on that level with Ophelia. This Hamlet is the consummate philosopher, matching wits with Ophelia and even referring to the book she is carrying. The concepts of death and release are explored with great cerebral impact, so much so that, in directing a full production, I can easily see Hamlet reading voraciously through the early stages of the play.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

The second staging focused upon the circumstances of the characters. Hamlet, knowing he is spied upon, takes refuge in the arms of his forbidden love but is unable to tell her the whole truth of his problems. Ophelia, torn by duty to her father, her King, and her love, must react to Hamlet’s considering death and suicide. This staging speaks to the troubles as written by Shakespeare and had great emotional and visceral impact. Similar to the first staging, I can see a full production of this sort of Hamlet.
These are two very different interpretations of the “To be or not to be” speech, but it is vital to remember they are both based on Shakespeare’s texts.
“So what?” you may be thinking. “Why is this important?” Well, for hundreds of years the theatre world has embraced a version of Hamlet that does not agree with the words Shakespeare wrote. Elsewhere in Hamlet, Shakespeare commands “suit the action to the word”, charging us to base our versions of his work on the words he left behind. He did the job of a playwright well, creating the skeleton of his plays. It falls to us to give that skeleton a heart, a soul, and scars.

This article originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.