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What is happening to Romeo and Juliet?

Nothing, it's "just" racism

What is happening to Romeo and Juliet? Nothing, it's just racism

Romeo and Juliet is perhaps one of the most well-known and appreciated love stories (although not everyone would define it as such) of contemporary times. Originating, of course, as a theatrical representation written by William Shakespeare, it has been adapted over the years for film and television, in the form of poetry and ballet, animation, and even video games. Cited and parodied repeatedly by just about everyone, it sometimes returns to its place of origin, the theater, and its home country, England. For instance, starting from May, a new version of it (conceived and directed by Jamie Lloyd) will take the stage at London's Duke of York's Theatre, for 12 weeks filled with rivalry, desperate love, and death in the West End. And someone is not happy about it. Not at all.

Romeo and Juliet: Tom Holland (and more) are coming

In the cast of this reinterpretation, one star steals the spotlight from all the others. It's the beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe's Spider-Man and boyfriend of Zendaya, Tom Holland. The young actor, who began his career in the West End and is a talented dancer (who could forget his choreography to Rihanna's Umbrella?), has taken a break from the world of cinema to, in the meantime, become Romeo. He will be the protagonist of what already seems to be the theatrical event of the year. Playing his female counterpart, in the role of Juliet, will be Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, a British actress of Ghanaian descent who, despite being very young, has a respectable career in theater. In addition to acting, she writes and composes, and she's no stranger to Shakespeare, having also participated in productions of Macbeth and Othello. In short, a veteran, whom we've also seen on television in Bad Education.

What's the Issue?

If you've spent even just a minute of your time on Twitter in recent months, unfortunately for you, you already know what we're talking about. The fact that the role of Juliet, a symbol of pure female beauty (and therefore, in racist rhetoric, inevitably white), has gone to a black actress has stirred up users, who have come out of the woodwork and, posing as theater experts, have demanded historical accuracy and have not spared racist comments towards the actress. So much so that Jamie Lloyd's company had to issue an official statement, on behalf of the entire production: "We are working with a remarkable group of artists. We insist that they are free to create work without facing online harassment. We will continue to support and protect everyone in our company at all costs. Any abuse will not be tolerated and will be reported. Bullying and harassment have no place online, in our industry or in our wider communities."

The Power of Facts and the Racism and Misogyny That Go Hand in Hand

Obviously, we're talking about nothing. Against the theories of self-proclaimed theater and European experts from the second half of the 1500s (the tragedy was composed between 1594 and 1596), the facts clash. In Shakespeare's time, for example, women couldn't set foot on stage. All roles were played by men, even those of women. A "faithful" portrayal would have thus required a male actor in the role of Juliet. As if that weren't enough, these people wield as a weapon an idea of the Middle Ages that is cinematic and unreal, totally white and historically inaccurate. Just as, in reality, Shakespeare's writing of the tragedy was historically free, deeply influenced by the religious clashes between the Anglican Church and Catholicism. Stepping out of the realm of history for a moment, we also note that in July 2023, a production of the same story, also in London, featured a black performer (Toheeb Jimoh) in the role of Romeo. The reactions were not the same. Certainly, because tied to this specific production starting in May are the illustrious names of Jamie Lloyd and Tom Holland, but perhaps also because racism merges with misogyny and with the unyielding power of white and European beauty standards, and unfortunately, these things reinforce each other unabatedly.

And Now? The Fate of Romeo and Juliet on Stage

Even though these users have forced the company to issue a statement, the truth lies in the numbers: the London show is already sold out, for all twelve weeks, so much so that there are rumors of it also moving to Broadway. The Mirror says: "Romeo and Juliet will head to Broadway after its London run, with details to be announced in due course. While director Jamie Lloyd has made a name for his minimalist adaptations of classic texts, the headline grabber for what is essentially yet another production of Romeo and Juliet is undoubtedly its leading man." Whether it's true or not, we'll find out in the coming months. What matters, however, is showing racist people that their boycott efforts and social sh*t storms are increasingly futile, that representation matters and moves forward, step by step, and above all that outside online platforms, things are slowly changing, leaving them behind, one theatrical production at a time. And the best of luck to Francesca Amewudah-Rivers!