Shakespeare Review: My Shakespeare

On this page, I review a Shakespeare book, movie, or TV show that I feel has some kind of value, either as an interpretation of Shakespeare, or a means to learn more about the man and his writing. This post will introduce you to an incredible documentary, and in my view one of the best ways to encourage, excite, and challenge young people reading Romeo and Juliet Aptly titled, it is called, My Shakespeare.

  1. Name:My Shakespeare
  2. Year: 2004
  3. Director: Michael Waldman
  4. Ages:PG for frank discussions of violence, and occasional suggestive language.
  5. Media:Full length documentary, (available on Amazon and Netflix DVD)
  6. Recommendation: I’d recommend this to high school and college students, as well as all theater teachers and practitioners. A word of caution though- nearly everyone in the documentary speaks with various British accents (from posh London to poor Harlesden), and thus if you think your class might not be able to understand foreign accents, you might want a different version, or put on the subtitles.
  7. Premise: Director Patterson Joseph is a man on a mission- to prove that the people in his home town, (the poor, violence-ridden town of Harlesden England), that these same people can and will put on a production of Romeo and Juliet, in just four weeks. The cast has never acted before, and Patterson sometimes has to drag them kicking and screaming into rehearsals, but eventually they all learn that putting on a Shakespeare play can become an extremely personal experience. In the beginning, they are attempting Shakespeare, but by the end they live it. In between the action, there are interviews with Baz Luhrman, the celebrated director of the Leonardo Dicaprio film version of Romeo and Juliet back in 1996. Baz serves as a sort of chorus, explaining some of the challenges a director like Patterson will inevitably face as he and his actors bring the play to life.
  8. Repeated Ideas That Run Through the Documentary:
    1. You can do this- you can act, you can understand Shakespeare, you can finish something, you can show emotions, and you can direct.
    2. Shakespeare is able to tell stories that appeal to everyone, and here’s the proof.
    3. The best way to understand Shakespeare is to get on your feet and do it.
  9. Moments to watch for: Before I list my favorite moments in the documentary, I’d like to list the theatrical process by which Patterson and his company put on Romeo and Juliet. 
    • The Process Of Creating Romeo and Juliet:
      1. Auditions/ Improv Games (4 weeks to go)
      2. Table Work, where the actors read the script and talk about their characters.
      3. Paraphrasing the script and improv (9 days to go)
      4. Stage combat Rehearsals- prepping the fights.
      5. Opening Scene rehearsal on a basketball court.
      6. Vocal Rehearsal
      7. The Emotion Workshop (8 days to go) The actors try to tap into their own emotions to try and bring some real feelings into their parts.
      8. Death Scene Rehearsal in a Graveyard!
      9. Last minute changes (5 days to go)
      10. Globe theater rehearsal
      11. Nighttime Balcony Scene Rehearsal at the aptly named, “Shakespeare Road.”
      12. Tech Rehearsal at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts.
      13. Speed Through Rehearsal/ The final rehearsal (1 day to go)
      14. Performance at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art
    • Now a look at some of my favorite parts of the documentary.
    1. The audition/ casting scene- In this scene you watch the future cast members explore the story of the play through improvisation, then you see their background through a series of headshots and dossiers. The whole cast is more diverse than any West End production: black, white, Christian, Muslim, young people and old people. Patterson’s casting choices alone makes this production fresh and relevant to our shrinking little world. A few cast members are refugees that came to England because of their countries’ own family feuds in Somalia and Afghanistan. Even more striking, Romeo and Juliet are very young- 18 and 22 respectively, which gives their love scenes an amazing truth and honesty. At first they think they have nothing in common with their characters, but in reality they have even more in common than most of us who read Romeo and Juliet.
    2. The table work scene where the cast learns about their characters You see Mustafa as Mercutio learn that Shakespeare can be funny, you see Jonathan as Romeo learn that some of Shakspeare’s words are still used today, and you see Muska just start to flirt with the idea of playing Juliet.
    3. Jonathan’s Story- Unlike most actors who have played Romeo, Jonathan Thomas has been in a real fight, and he describes it in brutal detail, even showing the scars he got from his stab wounds. Hearing his story gives his performance a truth and poignancy that I’ve never seen in any other version.
    4. The Balcony Scene Rehearsals- In this documentary the two leads perform the scene many times, in rehearsal where they talk about how hard it is to play love realistically, in Shakespeare’s Globe, where they see how it was done in Shakespeare’s day, in a modern balcony back in Harlesden, (on the appropriately named “Shakespeare Road,” and at last in the final performance. Few documentaries show just how hard it is to do a Shakespearean scene, particularly if it’s famous, and how many different ways a director and a pair of talented actors can play it and find new things each and every time.
    5. The scene where Patterson lets one of the actors go. Everyone in this production has to overcome obstacles, even the director; when one of his actors fails to perform, he simply has to drop the axe and recast one of his lead roles. Theater is hard work, and just like any job, the director has to take control and do what is necessary to make sure that the production is a success.
    6. Rehearsal at the Globe Theater On one very special day, the actors step onto the stage of the reconstructed Globe, and take a few tentative steps into the 1500s. Once in the space, they take to it like fish to water, playing with the audience, playing with projection, and their lines are infused with a special kind of energy that only arises from the boards of an Elizabethan stage. I found it interesting that when Jonathan was talking to Mark Rylance, the artistic director of the Globe, he asks what kind of man Shakespeare was, because he’s starting to see Shakespeare as a peer!
  1. My reaction: This documentary gives me hope every time I see it. Over and over again Patterson instills in his cast the idea of “Yes, you can,” yes, these people can understand Shakespeare, yes they can learn their lines, yes they can act, yes they can do something intelligent, and moving, and honest, and beautiful and what better play to bring that message across than Romeo and Juliet, which is full of youthful energy and excitement. My only complaint is the interviews with Baz Luhrman don’t really add much to the documentary side of things; Luhrman was really only there for name recognition, and he certainly knows less about Shakespeare than the RSC veteran Patterson. Nevertheless, the whole documentary Is nothing short of inspiring from beginning to end.
  2. Notable cast members
  1. Muska Khpal as Juliet. An 18 year- old Afghan refugee who came to England in 1996, without even speaking English, now playing one of the greatest characters in English literature! Like Juliet herself, Muska has very strict parents (who didn’t approve of her playing the part), and is at first is extremely shy towards Romeo, toward the play, and even the director, but when you hear her talk about her dream to return to Afghanistan and become a doctor, you can sense Juliet’s strength and independence.
  2. Jonathan Taylor 22 year-old Jonathan is a very charismatic and intelligent young man. After this production he became a professional actor. He speaks articulately about the experience of acting for the first time, reading Shakespeare for the first time, and even his own experiences with love and violence on the streets of Harlesden. He is also very talented and speaks the lines with an effortless panache. I found myself rooting for him the whole time, and the fact that I got to see this production spark his interest in acting and then to see him change and grow was truly inspiring.
  3. Mustafa as Mercutio Tiny, sparkle eyed Somali refugee. He is truly Mercurial- he frequently jokes and kids with the cast, yet at the same time, he is deathly serious when he talks about his life in Somalia- seeing people die in front of him. When he dies onstage, you know his performance is drawn from some real world experience.
  1. Grade: 5 Shakespeare globes.

Another Review: Films Media Group – “My Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet for a New Generation:” http://www.films.com/ecTitleDetail.aspx?TitleID=20674&r=

Interview with the director, Joseph Patterson: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/jul/01/shakespeare-and-me-paterson-joseph-julius-caesar