As an ex-English teacher who has taught Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet I am delighted to be part of the launch celebrations for a brand new retelling of the story, Juliet and Romeo, by David Hewson. Not only do I have my review of Juliet and Romeo today, but I am thrilled to have been able to ask David Hewson a little bit about the book.
Juliet and Romeo
Two young people meet: Romeo, desperate for love before being sent away to study, and Juliet facing a forced marriage to a nobleman she doesn’t know. Fate and circumstance bring them together in a desperate attempt to thwart their parents with a secret marriage.
But in a single fateful week, their intricate scheming falls terribly apart.
Shakespeare’s most well-known and well-loved play has been turned in to a gripping romantic thriller with a modern twist.
Rich with the sights and sounds of medieval Italy, peopled with a vibrant cast of characters who spring from the page, this is Shakespeare as you’ve never read it before.
An Interview with David Hewson
Thanks so much for agreeing to answer my questions about Juliet and Romeo David. Firstly, why did you choose Romeo and Juliet as opposed to any other Shakespeare play as a stimulus for your writing?
Partly because it’s so very well known – and so very misunderstood. It’s far from being a simple love story. There’s a lot more going on underneath the surface there to do with identity, personal freedom, the gulfs between the ages and issues of class…. I felt there was a lot to work with.
I totally agree – and I loved the way you explored the character of the nurse further.
How important do you think reimaginings are to engaging a modern audience in established stories?
To be honest I don’t know. I didn’t set out to modernise Shakespeare here. I wanted to offer a new perspective on a classic story – one that isn’t Shakespeare’s in truth since it had been knocking round as a folk myth for a good century before he picked it up. My aim was to try to produce a modern, easy-to-read and imaginative reworking of that original tale, but still set in historic Verona.
Yes, I think it’s easy to forget that Shakespeare wasn’t ‘original’ in his stories but used sources from all over the place.
That said, what techniques did you employ in order to retain an authentic feel without becoming a pastiche of Shakespeare’s writing?
The first thing I did was go to Verona and wander the streets to try make sure the story would fit using that as a canvas. Fortunately it does – the city hasn’t changed much at all and you can still see some of the key locations used, from the Piazza Erbe to San Zeno and the Arena. The second thing was to mesh in the history of 1499 into the story. This is the birth of the Renaissance which is key because I see Juliet as someone who very much identifies with the new mood of the times. Finally I wanted the language to be plain and modern, not fake Shakespeare. I wouldn’t use anachronisms – having someone say OK for example. But I don’t want people to be foxed by the prose.
And I think you got it spot on.
In your version of the story, the balance of power is weighted more towards Juliet than Romeo (as suggested by your title). Why did you choose this approach?
Because for me Juliet is the focus of the story. She’s the one truly in jeopardy, facing a forced marriage that’s as good as a death sentence. Romeo is much less taxed – he simply wants to be in love with a beautiful girl. Of course it was hard for Shakespeare to focus so much on Juliet because he couldn’t use a female actor in the part – it would be a boy since women weren’t allowed on the stage back then.
I found Juliet and Romeo appealed to all the reader’s senses. How far was this deliberate in order to create an authentic sense of the era and how far did it arise naturally out of your writing?
Drama demands locations and sets; books require worlds. You don’t just need to see the Verona of 1499. You must hear it, smell it, taste it, know what it’s like to walk those cobbled streets. Research, imagination and lots and lots of notes and photos go to make the world in my head before I start writing.
Well they certainly worked for me!
The events in Juliet and Romeo’s Verona are well known. Who do you think is to blame for them?
Ultimately Romeo’s to blame for the way the story pans out I’m afraid. He thinks he’s a child of the Renaissance too, because that’s what Juliet wants him to be. But when push comes to shove he can’t stop himself chasing Tybalt and killing him in the street. It’s stupid since Escalus, the boss of Verona, has already said that anyone breaking the peace would be hanged. Worse, Romeo in the heat of the moment blames Juliet because ‘love has made him weak’. If he really were the Renaissance soul he thought he would have realised it was arrogance, pride and the old violent ways that made him weak, and love would have made him strong enough to resist those.
Yes. He hardly embodies a cunning Machiavellian Renaissance insight does he?
Without wishing to spoil the book for those who have yet to read it, you have made significant changes to some events and have developed many of the minor characters. How did you make those changes and what did you think a reader reaction might be?
My job’s to produce a compelling story not pay homage to Shakespeare or the writers of the story who came before. Shakespeare used other material for so many of his plays – and wasn’t afraid to change the story there. It’s what writers do when we adapt material. We look for creative change not simple photocopying. How readers will react… I guess I’ll know very soon. But the audio version on which this was based is up from an audio Oscar in New York this month, nominated as best original audio of 2017, so I’m hopeful I’ll escape with my life!
Oh I think you will – and congratulations on that nomination!
Which other Shakespeare play might you use as a stimulus in future and why?
Tough one that – would depend on who would be available for the performance. If I could get Richard Armitage back into the studio again one day then…. Well we’ll have to see.
If you could make it King Lear I’d be very grateful!
Thanks so much David, for telling us a bit about the background to Juliet and Romeo. I’ve found your responses to my questions very interesting.
My Review of Juliet and Romeo
I’ve always been wary of reading modern adaptations of Shakespeare and approached Juliet and Romeo with some trepidation.
However, I found David Hewson’s version of this classic tale totally interesting and engaging. I felt considerable research had gone into creating an historically and geographically convincing story whilst adding in greater depth and detail of the times so that there is a pleasing and entertaining story that didn’t need any knowledge of Shakespeare and yet managed to retain a feeling of authenticity. There is still enough of the original well known story to satisfy purists completely and I liked the iterative image of death throughout and the way Queen Mab’s influence is given greater status. The links with contemporary figures of the era such as Machiavelli added multiple layers of extra interest.
Most though provoking and fascinating for me was the shift in the balance of the relationship between Juliet and Romeo, flagged from the initial reversal of their names in the presentation of the title. Whilst Juliet is always shown as feisty, I felt she had even greater power and was surprised that Romeo still retained my empathy even when he appeared fairly emasculated. Similarly, I found the depth of violence in Lord Capulet emphasised by David Henson was totally plausible so that the full range of characters actually felt more rounded than in Shakespeare’s play.
I thoroughly enjoyed the overall quality of the writing too. David Hewson makes highly effective use of the senses so that there is a vibrancy and authenticity to the story. There’s evocative and brilliantly researched food, music, politics and geographical detail woven effortlessly into the narrative so that Juliet and Romeo is a hugely satisfying read.
Whilst I think some curmudgeonly readers might struggle to appreciate David Hewson’s narrative as being different from Shakespeare’s version of the story, this would be an erroneous approach as a reader. As David Hewson himself points out, Juliet and Romeo is not a ‘translation’ of Shakespeare, but rather that Shakespeare is used as a resource and stimulus for an entertaining thriller. Whilst it’s great fun to spot the direct links with Shakespeare’s version of the story, a reader doesn’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy Juliet and Romeo as an engaging narrative in its own right. Great fun to read.
About David Hewson
David Hewson is the author of more than 20 published novels including the Pieter Vos series set in Amsterdam and the Nic Costa books set in Rome. His acclaimed book adaptations of The Killing television series were published around the world. His audio adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet with A.J. Hartley, narrated by Alan Cumming and Richard Armitage respectively, were both shortlisted for Audie Awards.
A former journalist with the Sunday Times, Independent and The Times he lives in Kent.