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Dartmouth Production Reframes ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Around Issues

Thursday, February 19, 2015
Say R omeo and Juliet and it’s likely that some stock images will pop into your head: Boy meets girl, a balcony, a vial of poison and a few dazzling sword fights. But do those scenes, memorable as they are, tell the whole story of Shakespeare’s play?

Peter Hackett, a professor of theater at Dartmouth College, thinks not.

In a student production of the play opening Friday at the Hopkins Center and continuing through March 1, Hackett revisits the classic tragedy. Shakespeare wrote the play earlier in his career, after Richard II but before A Midsummer Night’s Dream . This is a somewhat abridged version that originated at the Globe Theatre in San Diego in the late 1930s.

“People have a hyper-romantic idea of the play,” Hackett said, but that 19th century vision, he said, omits other salient aspects that are not as often explored.

From the beginning , Shakespeare tells the audience that in the Italian city of Verona, where two prominent families, the Montagues and Capulets, are at war, nothing less than the fate of a city is at stake: “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/W here civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

Romeo and Juliet isn’t only a period piece about two enraptured teenagers falling in love for the first time. In an era in which we see centuries-old feuds and prejudices still being violently played out across the world, the play speaks to issues that never go away. It’s about “the failure of the state, the church and the family to protect and nurture the young kids in the play,” Hackett said.

Juliet, he points out, is a mere 13 years old, and her future has already been preordained by her parents: marriage to Paris, a man she barely knows. “Juliet’s father treats his daughter like a piece of property,” Hackett said.

The challenge is to stage Romeo and Juliet for “an audience that thinks it knows the story inside and out,” he said.

Hackett is taking a more experimental tack with this production, setting it in a rehearsal studio and using video cameras to record the action, so that the audience watches the actors both on stage and on monitors and a large video screen. Some of the footage the audience will see has been pre-recorded and some of it will be live. Actors will also read explanatory passages to the audience, which give context for what they are seeing.

“It forces you as an audience not to sit back and have your expectations met. ... I hope the effect is that it makes you listen to what is being said,” Hackett said.

Romeo and Juliet is also the last college production designed by Georgi Alexi-Meshkis hvili, who retires from Dartmouth at the end of this semester. After 20 years at the college, and an international career in stage and costume design, he will return to his native Georgia to teach theater design at Rustaveli State Theatre in the capital Tbilisi.

For information and tickets call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or go to

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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