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Board Games

Wherein pop-cultural trashing of William Shakespeare is concisely explained and defended, with added remarks on sex and violence

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he experiences the souped-up new film William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet along with renowned Bard-busting comedian Reed Martin.

Shakespeare.

Filmmakers just can't leave him alone, a remark that is meant in more ways than one. In the current downpour of Bard-based films, only the upcoming Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is presented untouched, untrimmed, unmessed with. Looking for Richard, by Al Pacino, intercuts the story of Richard III with man-on-the-street interviews examining popular culture's take on the meaning of Shakespeare's work. Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night updates the Renaissance comedy to the Victorian era, with an emphasis on gender-bending kinkiness, a definite stretch of the author's original vision.

"Stretched" is an understatement, however, when discussing Baz Luhrmann's daring, hallucinogenic new take on Romeo and Juliet, English lit's all-time favorite teen suicides. William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet is a bold modernization of the tragedy, set in a tacky, hip-hop fantasy world where feuding families wave guns and shout Elizabethan curses while driving fast cars and dropping Ecstasy. Though critics have torn it asunder, R+J is nevertheless so enticingly strange and feverish, so campy and full of fun, that filmgoers have gobbled it up, placing it in the top 10 for four weeks running, in spite of the fact that it represents a near-total trashing of the original work.

"If you don't shake them up now and then, Shakespeare's plays just die," explains Shakespearean comedian Reed Martin, emerging from the theater where R+J has just screened to an enthralled audience. "You have to work him over once in a while or he sort of becomes a museum piece."

Martin is a long-standing member of the traveling comedy troupe The Reduced Shakespeare Company. Known around the globe for their witty, irreverent stage shows, the RSC caused a theater-world stir in the mid-'80s by cheekily condensing the complete works of William S. into a single performance. Currently they are touring two non-Shakespeare shows, spoofy condensations of equally untouchable subject matter: the Bible, and the history of the U.S.A.

"I think it's fair game to do whatever you want with Shakespeare, or God, or history," Martin asserts, taking a sip of a post-film latté. "God can handle it, trust me. And I really don't think Shakespeare would mind. He wasn't an icon yet. He knew he was writing for the popular audience."

So what did Martin think of Romeo + Juliet?

"I think this is a very serious movie about the dangers of teenage sex," he deadpans. "It frightened me.

"The actors' handling of the text was a mixed bag," he adds, making a stab at serious criticism. He chides the mumblings of Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes, who play the lovers, while praising Pete Postlethwaite, who does much better as Friar Lawrence, the potion-pushing priest who puts Juliet in a fake coma, thus bringing about the libidinous kids' doom.

"Anything people take too seriously is ripe for lampooning," he says, returning to his original train of thought. "In my work, we always look for something with weight to it, to undermine and make fun of. That weight comes when people take a thing too seriously--and then they want everyone else to take as seriously as they do."

At my suggestion that a Romeo and Juliet sequel may be in the offing if the film's popularity continues, Martin concocts the storyline he'd devise were he called in to write the screenplay.

"It would be called, R+J: Part 2--The Cure," he pronounces. "Friar Lawrence has been fiddling in his lab, and he comes back and gives them a new potion, thus bringing them back to life. They immediately go after all the people who screwed them over when they were alive. They'd get the friar first, then the CEO of delivery service that failed to get the crucial message to Romeo. It will be a cross between R+J and Frankenstein. Maybe we'll call it William Shakespeare's and Mary Shelley's, R+J 2. The posters could say, 'Romeo and Juliet--They're Back, and They're Pissed!'"

Gee, would they still like each other? "Oh, sure, they'd have to," he insists. "People would hate it otherwise." And would it have as much sex and violence as the original? "More. Lot's more." Martin sips his coffee a moment.

"You know, we're so quick to put down all the films with sex and violence," he suggests, "but Shakespeare was full of sex and violence. The Bible is full of sex and violence. These are universally compelling themes, that have always been compelling. Same thing with politics. Everyone says how nasty political campaigns have become. I'm reading this book, sort of debunking the myths of American history, and [the authors] say, 'You know what? Political campaigns have always been nasty.'

"I think Americans know so little of history that they sort of lose track that a lot of what we say is so terrible about modern society has in fact been around forever. The names they called George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would shock you.

"It's a very old sport, this pulling down of icons," he grins. "As old as sex and violence."

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