WORDS BY EMILY GAGNE
PHOTOS BY MICHELLE MEDFORD
You could say that romantic movies are my only hate sprung from my only love, in that I hate romance and all the overly optimistic, lovey dovey crap that comes with it, but love movies in general. But there are the rare exceptions where a traditional cinematic romance will actually thaw out my hardened heart, making me wonder if maybe, after all, they aren’t that bad. One of these rare exceptions is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which just happened to be the inspiration for the latest in 360 Screenings‘ series of captivating and immerse theatre-meets-the-movies events.
I have to admit that going into Friday’s first 360: Love event, I was rather concerned. While the first few clues (photos of the moon, pictures of neon-lit parties) offered by the 360 crew pointed to R+J, my favourite and perhaps the most controversial version of Shakespeare’s infamously doomed tale of star-crossed lovers starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, some of the latter few shouted “Cinderella story!”, making me and a few of my fellow 360 fans consider other options like Ever After, a film that falls more into the hate than the love side of things for me. But the moment that I stepped into the St. Lawrence Hall, the gloriously gorgeous site picked to host the second-ever 360 Screenings Valentine’s Day event (their first, held on Feb. 14 of last year, was centred around Amélie), and saw a man dressed in an astronaut suit much like Paul Rudd’s Paris in the party sequence and a woman rocking the same ensemble (a red two-piece skirt suit and a leopard umbrella) that Luhrmann’s take on Juliet’s Nurse wore, I knew that I was about to be thrust into the ongoing battle between the Montagues and the Capulets and those two crazy kids who decided to go against it all in the name of you-know-what.
Since I’m such a huge fan of Romeo + Juliet (I have the soundtrack in my car to this day), I was prepared to scrutinize every single detail 360 used to recreate the world of fair Verona Beach (in case you didn’t know, this take transports R+J from Italy to the boardwalks of California). But everything they purposefully planted into the varying rooms of the third floor of the St. Lawrence Hall captured the delicate-meets-excessive feel of the film and the remarkable romance that fuels its fire. The main space, where you could get drinks and food from Cheesewerks (Verona and Mantua grilled sandwiches for everyone!) and Tiny Tom Donuts, served to represent the masquerade party where Romeo and Juliet first cross paths, and thus contained various partygoers, both overtly familiar (it was hard to miss the purple toga-toting Mr. Capulet) and more mysterious (I had to explain the Paris ensemble to a few people who hadn’t seen the movie in quite some time, and thus, didn’t quite remember the details of that fairly minor character). From there, you could walk into a room fashioned into the top floor of the Capulet mansion and observe the Nurse, Lady Capulet and Juliet speaking to one another on a couch, before sauntering into my second-favourite space of the night, a room full of candles and neon crosses that made for a surreal stand-in for the church where Romeo and his bride get married and–oh, the tragic irony!–get laid to rest.
On the opposite end of the floor, you could also speak with Romeo’s confidant, a shirtless Father Laurence, and write a letter to your betrothed, much as Juliet does for Romeo in the latter part of the film. But none of that compared to being in the blacklit room Romeo’s flamboyant cousin Mercutio, a stack of dance music and more crosses–this time an eerily haunting shade of green–called home. It was in that room that I got to engage with one of the actors for the first time. Dancing with a white-lingerie-clad Mercutio, I was instantly transported to the wonderfully garish pre-party sequence featuring him, Romeo and Benvolio pre-drinking and drugging on an abandoned stage. I’d interact with the actor a few times later on as well, as he, naturally, floated around the rooms like the life of the party that Mercutio is. But nothing would compare to my repeated interactions with the actor chosen to play the doomed-yet-dashing Romeo.
Although he wasn’t a dead ringer for Leo in the slightest, this actor really captured the carefree spirit of the young Montague boy the Capulet girl comes to love, constantly asking me and other partygoers questions like, “Who do you love?” (in a fluster, I definitely answered “Well, you’re pretty cute!” upon our first meeting). His partner in crime (literally and figuratively) Benvolio was also well-cast, and not just because he pulled off the fully open short-sleeved button down shirt and chain necklace look all too well. He really played up the clownish nature of the character in my interactions with him, once asking me and my friends to act as an all-girl Trojan horse for him (he had to avoid the eye-patched guy playing Tybalt!) and later asking me, the girl who once said she thought his cousin was cute, to dance with Romeo. That moment, with me getting twirled around like Juliet when she was awkwardly dancing with Paris, really personified the commitment of all of 360’s cast and crew to me. Even as I tried to get Romeo’s attention with my dorky non-charm (there was a definite mask-falling-over-mine-eyes moment), he never strayed from the pre-established script, speaking only of his love for a girl wearing angel wings, a girl named Juliet.
The chemistry between the two actors playing Romeo and Juliet was obvious too, as I managed to catch them run off into an elevator to recreate the moment when they first kiss behind the closed doors of the Capulet mansion lift. I only wish that 360 founders Ned Loach and Robert Gontier had found a way to get an aquarium–faux or otherwise–into one of the rooms, so I could have seen what they would have done with the meeting scene. That sequence, which sees Romeo spying on and shooting flirty glances at his future wife through the glass as “Kissing You” by Des’ree plays, is one of the most indelible parts of the film, not to mention modern romantic cinema as a whole. I know I turned into mush watching it again during the post-show screening, so I can only imagine how I would have felt seeing the loveliness go down live.
I also might have liked to see more incorporation of the original soundtrack, especially since they had a pianist on hand to play instrumental versions of assorted modern tracks (think Adele, Journey). Perhaps they couldn’t get the rights to use any of the songs, or the sheet music needed to, but considering how much music frames this particular film (I still get chills thinking of the young boy singing the cover of “When Doves Cry,” as well as “Everybody’s Free (to Feel Good)”), it does seem a bit of a shame at least one song couldn’t be incorporated, whether in the main room via the pianist or in Mercutio’s dance wonderland via a stereo.
Really though, these qualms are very minor, and in the big picture, 360 Screenings: Romeo + Juliet did exactly what it needed to. It functioned much like the film did, and still does, staying true to a concept that we’re already incredibly familiar with while fearlessly making it its own. But, more importantly, it made this girl who can, much like the Montagues and Capulets, get a little too caught up in hate fall hopelessly in love with love for three hours.