All-Male 'Romeo And Juliet' True To Bard's Time Shakespeare's plays were all-male affairs during his day. And that means Juliet — one of his greatest female leads — was originally performed by a boy. Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theater Company is staging a new production of Romeo and Juliet with men playing every role.
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All-Male 'Romeo And Juliet' True To Bard's Time

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neal Conan. Tomorrow, join Ira Flatow on Science Friday as the talk turns skyward towards the Hubble telescope. And now, as we learn in high school English class, Shakespeare plays were all-male affairs during his day, and that means Juliet, one of his greatest female characters, was actually written for a boy.

Here in Washington, the Shakespeare Theatre Company is staging an all-male production of "Romeo and Juliet." In a minute the director along with the actor who plays Juliet will join us to talk about the new discoveries that emerge about this timeless classic when it's performed as it was originally intended.

If you'd like to talk with him about the play or if you've ever seen an all-male production of "Romeo and Juliet," give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. And the email address is talk@npr.org.

David Muse is the associate artistic director for the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the director of this season's production of "Romeo and Juliet." James Davis is the actor who plays Juliet in this all-male cast. They join us now here in studio 3A. It's so great to have you with us.

Mr. DAVID MUSE (Associate Artistic Director, Shakespeare Theatre Company): Thanks Lynn, great to be here.

Mr. JAMES DAVIS (Actor, "Romeo and Juliet"): Yeah, likewise.

NEARY: Great. And David, tell me. What was - what led to your decision to direct "Romeo and Juliet" with an all-male cast?

Mr. MUSE: Well, it was a few things. Michael asked me to direct "Romeo and Juliet."

NEARY: Michael?

Mr. MUSE: Michael Kahn, artistic director, thank you, asked me to direct "Romeo and Juliet," and I had to hunt around for a way to make the play feel fresh and interesting for me, and I also hope for our audiences. It's just - it's because it is the best-known play by Shakespeare. It's the one we first read. It's the one we've seen the most number of times. And I was hunting around for a way to make it interesting again, for us to provide a new lens in a way that didn't feel put on, or, you know, like I was setting the play in a period that felt like might work but wasn't ultimately getting at was the heart of the play.

And so I thought, what better way than to try to do this all-male convention, which I'd seen - you know, done a numbers of times, were very successfully over the last 10 years. A lot of most influential productions I had seen had done it. But I'd never seen anyone try to do it with a love story.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. MUSE: You know, people try to the convention with gender-bending comedies, very frequently comedies more often. So it felt risky. I hoped it would provide some new perspectives on the play that we know so well.

NEARY: James, did you have any trepidation about taking on the part of Juliet?

Mr. DAVIS: No. I'm open to like any opportunity to play any sort of role. I embraced the challenge of doing something like this. I have had experience of playing a few female characters before in Shakespeare but never to the degree of full costume, full wig, full shoes, you know, flats - women's flats. It's always been more of a low budget, kind of cotton, stretchy fabric and wrap it around the body with some off-off Broadway theaters.

NEARY: You were saying that you had 26 members of your family came to see the show on Sunday?

Mr. DAVIS: Yeah.

NEARY: And what was their reaction?

Mr. DAVIS: It was great. I was saying right before we walked in here, I feel like Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare in this production, I feel like there are themes that everybody can relate to. You know, a lot of the student audiences relate to the love story, maybe finding their first love. And maybe they're not aware we are presenting the same things in the story that they're going through. But I have a little niece and she - she's nine or ten, and she was reacting to the part where Capulet is yelling at his daughter on the floor, and she's crying and on the floor weeping and wailing. So even someone who is nine or ten years old who hasn't felt love before, there's this theme of a parent-daughter relationship that she can really relate to. And I thought that was really sweet and really telling, and there's many facets of a story that can come across.

NEARY: One thing I was struck by, David, is there was a lot of humor in this production of "Romeo and Juliet," and there isn't always. Sometimes they're done very stodgily so you don't see all the humor. But I wondered if you went for the humor more especially, if having an all-male cast lent itself to that or what?

Mr. MUSE: A number of people have noted that, and it's been so interesting to me because I didn't set out at all to make the play - to mine it for its humor. We just really took it seriously moment by moment and saw that what was there. I think the play is very funny, purposefully so. I think it waits as long as it can to be a tragedy. And scene after scene, you think there's going to be a way that it could all work out OK. So we did work hard not to, sort of, you know, make it feel like a tragedy throughout. We thought that that would actually make the tragedy play more powerfully. I'm sure a part of having a company of men in the room brought some humor out just because there was a playfulness there that can happen when you get a whole group of men in a room...

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. MUSE: Making a play together. But it wasn't on the agenda we had at all.

NEARY: I was wondering if there were any discoveries that you did make by casting the play this way that you might not have directing it into a more traditional way, in the text. I mean, anything that you - that came out.

Mr. MUSE: Yeah, a lot of things. I think, gee, I mean, I could probably go on and on. I do have to say, you know, first of all, that one of the surprising things is how little ultimately it winds up mattering. There is an experience you have after about 10 minutes when you can forget about the convention, and you realize that artifice and pretense are just such a part of any theatre-watching experience and you sort of get over it.

But it does do some interesting things to both to create the world in which the play happens, which is a very masculine-dominated one, and Shakespeare goes to great lengths to make that a big part of what he's writing about in the play.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. MUSE: Of course, there's lines all over the place about behaving like a man or behaving like a woman, so you start to pay, I think, paradoxically even more attention to the performance of gender in a world like that, when you have an all-male cast. And then - and Jimmy can maybe talk about this more at length, but we also discovered some interesting ways in which the relationship between the two central lovers works when you're doing an all-male cast.

NEARY: And I was going to ask you about that, yeah.

Mr. MUSE: Specifically, it seem - it turns, I think, from a relationship that's concentrated on sort of a romantic, sexual love that we've seen so much, to one that has to do with the inner play of wit and of language between two lovers. There's a friendship level and an admiration of the exchange of wit level between these two lovers that I think in mixed-cast productions we often miss.

NEARY: Yeah, James, what was your take on those - on the love scenes?

Mr. DAVIS: Yeah, there was a line that popped up to me very early on, and it was: art thou gone so love, Lord, I, husband, friend? And Finn and I really connected to that idea of friendship. We thought it would be a great thing to discover in this all-male production.

And the passion is in the language. I keep reading that when it was done, you know, in the 16th century, that the audiences would have loved to see - would have loved a scene like a severed head to come on stage and violence and this humor, and not so much two men on stage in a bed, you know, being very passionate with each other.

NEARY: Right.

Mr. DAVIS: And Rome and Juliet have very few scenes together. In the second act, they have one scene where they're both conscious at the same time, it's in the beginning, and they're saying goodbye. And Romeo has been exiled, and it's very quick. It's under extreme circumstances like, go, you have to go, you have to go. And yeah...

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

NEARY: Let's see, we have a caller here now. Let's go to Ellen, she's in Indianapolis. Hi, Ellen. Ellen, are you there?

ELLEN (Caller): Yes, I'm here.

NEARY: Go ahead.

ELLEN: I'm an opera singer, and I find that in opera we often have love scenes between two women because oftentimes the part of a young man is played by a woman. I've been in a couple of love scenes. One was for an early Mozart opera - I can't think of the name at the moment. Another one is (unintelligible) by Strauss, which has a very passionate love affair between a young man and a woman, and the young man is played by a woman.

NEARY: And how does that work out? I mean, is that awkward at all? Or...

ELLEN: It's maybe a little bit awkward but really it's no different than acting. Usually if you're playing opposite a man, it's not necessarily, you know, your husband or your boyfriend. So I didn't really find it as awkward. Once somebody is in a costume, they got their pants and their jacket on, for all intensive purposes they're a young man.

Mr. DAVIS: I would also imagine that in an opera when you're singing so continuously, just like in Shakespeare, where you're speaking so continuously, the passion comes in the language. It's in the language and not so much of these silent moments where there's a hot and heavy petting on stage, you know. We can focus on the art in that way, both opera and Shakespeare.

ELLEN: Right.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for you call, Ellen.

ELLEN: OK. Thank you.

NEARY: And here's an interesting email from Paul. He says, I saw a troop from England that did all-male Shakespeare. It was interesting to see how men think women act.

And I wonder, did you get advice from women at all about how woman act? Or...

Mr. DAVIS: No, I have a few close friends and I took a few of their habits, but other than that I really just tried to focus on the language of the play and tried to come up with a Juliet that was both Finn's Juliet, who plays Romeo, David the director, and my Juliet, something that was very organic. So I never really started playing a woman. I played the language first.

NEARY: But you know, what I thought was interesting and I wonder if it came from you or from the director, but you've got the sense of Juliet as a very young - not even a young woman - really is a girl. She was kind of a - you know...

Mr. MUSE: I think that's right. And I actually think - and we haven't talked about this, Jimmy and I, because I don't want to make him self-conscious about it, but I actually think that as a young male actor, in an odd way, you can get a way with playing a 14-year-old girl in a way that you couldn't if you were a female actor of Jimmy's age. I think if you were a woman trying to do that, it would feel like you were playing like a little girl, it would feel like something put on. But somehow the artifice of an all-male production and where it's so obvious that he's not the character, it allows him to play like you saw...

NEARY: Right.

Mr. MUSE: In a way that a woman might not be able to get away with it.

NEARY: Kind of embarrassed, you know, she was very self-conscious about what was going on about herself, and she was actually tripping all over herself here and there, too. I was worried about her.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

Mr. MUSE: She talks herself out. She's also very world-wise and she talks herself out of love so many times. But I think that the youthfulness came from this idea of everything is a discovery. Loves is a discovery. Punishment is a discovery, all these firsts that she had. And I feel like connecting to those we came up with very youthful, unexperienced characters.

NEARY: You've talked about your Romeo a few times, Finn. So how did he - how did he approach this? I mean, how did you approach the two of them together working as two men together and being these lovers, these star-crossed lovers?

Mr. MUSE: Well, the great thing is that Jimmy and Finn had - knew each other and had a strong friendship before they began this project. There's actually a funny story. They were both at Juilliard together, and first-year students are partnered with second-year students as buddies, that sort of a body system at Juilliard. And Finn, or Jimmy, was Finn's buddy when Finn showed up at school. So they knew each other well. So a lot of what you might expect to be an uncomfortable situation between two people just was never operating. So we didn't really have to talk about it. We just played the scenes. They were comfortable with one another. We tried to figure out the balance between language and physical contact in a way that felt right to all of us.

NEARY: David Muse is the director of the all-male cast of "Romeo and Juliet," which is currently being shown with the Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington. And you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

I wondered if you've gotten any criticism at all for casting an all-male cast just because, you know, so many women are out there looking for work, and at such full, great, women's roles, I would think that some actresses are not so happy with you.

Mr. MUSE: I'm sure you're right.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

And like a lot of plays by Shakespeare, it's actually not full of great women's roles. There are four of them.

NEARY: Right. But Juliet is one of them.

Mr. MUSE: But they're great. And sure, sure you get that. And for me it was -for that reason, it was a difficult decision to make because I work in a theatre where we do classical theatre all the time, and there's some sex discrimination built into the very fabric of casting those plays because they almost always have many more men than women roles. So for actresses who are really talented, classical theatre actresses, there aren't that many opportunities. There aren't that many roles. And to introduce into that reality a convention that makes it even harder for them to get a role at the Shakespeare Theatre, I had to be really convinced to that this was going to be a revealing way to do the play and that it was worth it, in a way. And I hope that the people who might take issue with the casting choice, you know, will come see it and feel like...

NEARY: It was worth it.

Mr. MUSE: It was worth it. But we learned enough by doing it.

NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can get a call here from Chris. He's calling from Kansas City, Missouri. Hi Chris.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

NEARY: I'm good.

CHRIS: Good. Thanks for taking my call. I've got a quick comment and then a question. I'll take my answer via the radio. When I was in secondary school in England, we took a road trip to London and we visited the Globe Theater. And we actually watched an all-male production of a little snippet - it could really be called a review - of many different Shakespearian works. And a lot of us were immature at the time, but they really pulled it off. By the end, we were like, you know, hey, that's a man, but you know, it's a woman. And you know, it was great, and we all just forgot that it's being played by all men.

And my question was, the maturity level of the audience, does that play a part in anything that you do and actually making your characters believable?

Mr. DAVIS: It's really amazing how an older audience - and we also do performances for student audiences, too - how they both give over to the conceit of the all-male so soon. There's a kiss in the ballroom scene after the sonnet, and when we did it for the student audiences, at first, some of the responses were, uh, uh, no, no. They didn't - they did not like it at all.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

But in that goodbye scene in the second act, Romeo says, one kiss and I'll descend. And we ran towards each other and kissed each other on the lips. And the students were - they were cheering us on. They were really excited, which tells me they forgot. They gave into the conceit which is so - which is - which was the point and was so amazing.

NEARY: What kind of reaction - thanks so much. Anything else you wanted to add there, Chris? I think he's gone. Thanks so much for calling, Chris. What kind of reaction are you getting in general, David, to the production?

Mr. MUSE: Well, generally enthusiastic but mixed. And that's what you want, I think, when you set out to do a production like this. You know it's going to stir up different kinds of responses in different people, and so it's been fascinating to watch how different people respond to it.

In general, people take very little issue with the way we're doing it. Occasionally they do. It's been interesting that some of that response in a way feels from opposite sides, if you will, of the political spectrum. You know, some people, like you suggested, will respond from a gender discrimination standpoint. And some other people respond because they feel like there's some subtle social agenda that has to do with advancing the cause of homosexuals in the production. And then - but those seem like pretty extreme, and in general, people get behind it enthusiastically, which I'm very grateful to see because I was very nervous about this. I felt like, is this the production that's pushing this convention to the breaking point, and actually for a modern audience, will this be palatable? Or are we asking too much of our audience? And I'm grateful to say that by and large, we're not.

NEARY: James, I have just one last question for you. Do you want to play Romeo?

Mr. DAVIS: I'd rather play Mercutio.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

NEARY: Well, if you get a chance to play Romeo, maybe this will give you some new insight into the character.

Mr. DAVIS: I played the other half. I played the better half.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

NEARY: Thanks so much to both of you for being with us. James Davis plays the character of Juliet in the all-male cast at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. David Muse is the associate artistic director for the theatre and he directed this production, which runs through October 18th. They joined us here in studio 3A. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. DAVIS: Thank you, Lynn.

Mr. MUSE: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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