The opening words of Simon Godwin’s version of “Romeo & Juliet” are familiar, but the setting is not. An actor still speaks of “Two households, both alike in dignity,” but the lines are delivered not to a packed house, but rather to a group of actors on a bare stage, looking like they’re about to start rehearsal.
For this National Theatre production of Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers, Godwin moved the action to modern times, and he shot, by necessity, inside the Lyttelton Theatre in London.
Godwin moved from the UK to Virginia in the fall of 2019 to lead the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. But he was still supposed to direct a play a year for the National Theatre in London. That play was going to be “Romeo & Juliet” in the summer of 2020, but then the pandemic forced a change of course.
Godwin and his team at the National Theatre jumped on the idea of switching to a film version, but there were still myriad challenges. For one, Godwin had never made a movie or picked up a camera. And for safety purposes, the film needed to be shot quickly, and in one place.
“There would be no locations, there would be no trips to Italy, there would be no even natural light,” Godwin says. “And yet, I remembered a phrase from the Stoics, who had the motto: The obstacle is the way.”
Another challenge was cutting Shakespeare’s three-hour play down to a TV movie-friendly length of 90 minutes.
This means some familiar lines and scenes hit the cutting room floor, but Godwin says Shakespeare himself would have been in favor of adapting his play to fit new mediums and reach new audiences. Godwin made other changes too, including giving Lord Capulet’s lines to Lady Capulet so that she becomes the person running the household and attempting to force Juliet to marry Paris.
Simon Godwin’s version of “Romeo & Juliet” streams on PBS through May 21.