Romeo & Juliet – arguably one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays – has been set… well, pretty much everywhere over the centuries. The infamous star-crossed lovers have acted out their tragic affair to the soundtrack of Radiohead and in the midst of a New York City gang war.
Now, a new production in Johannesburg, South Africa has them street-dancing their grievances.
“Rebellion & Johannesburg,” the name of the production, riffs on many of the play’s themes: vengeance, tragedy and ill-fated relationships. New themes that hit a nerve with South African youth have been woven in as well: political corruption, crime and excess.
The main characters’ rebellion steps off the stage, according to the show’s creator and choreographer, Jessica Nupen
“We’re rebelling against the system that we are beholden to,” says Nupen.
“We are rebelling against the high walls of security, we are rebelling against crime and violence that we experience every day; we are rebelling against the fact that we want to have our voice heard as a young generation.”
The performance reflects the youthful vigor and restlessness of one of the continent’s most dynamic cities, and the audience is dragged along in its fast-paced wake.
“Getting engaged and in touch with young people, not only dancers, but young people in Johannesburg today was a huge inspiration, because I saw how difficult it is as a young person to not only survive in Johannesburg, but to express yourself freely,” Nupen explains.
“I saw this urge and this need for the opinions and the ideas of these young people to be heard. And I saw the medium of art – the medium of dance – as a passage for which to convey this information.”
It’s an approach that has made the Elizabethan playwright more accessible to the capital’s youth, combining street culture with high-brow English literature.
Verona for instance is replaced with the dual towers of Ponte and Brixton, landmarks that loom large over the city. Meanwhile swords and daggers are replaced with brooms and buckets, which act as extensions of the dancers’ bodies.
But it is perhaps the cultural translations that are most interesting. Shakespeare’s Franciscan priest becomes an unscrupulous African sangoma who commercializes ancient rituals. Likewise, Juliet, usually innocent and demure, is transformed into a street-savvy and seductive young woman.
It’s a gamble that has paid off. “Rebellion and Johannesburg” opened last month to rave reviews and is set to embark on an international tour.
For Nupen, the translation boils down to a simple equation, which perhaps explains her production’s success.
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“I was interested or inspired by (Romeo and Juliet’s) tumultuous lives, influenced by their environment,” she says. “Their environment was what made them commit certain actions, or formed and shaped them into the people they were.”
From old English past to contemporary Africa present, that’s surely something everyone can relate to.