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'Romeo and Juliet' still smells like teen (or 20-plus) spirit

October 10, 2013|By David Ng
  • Douglas Booth, right, and Hailee Steinfeld, center, in a scene from "Romeo and Juliet."
Douglas Booth, right, and Hailee Steinfeld, center, in a scene from "Romeo… (Philippe Antonello / Associated…)

Casting age-appropriate actors for Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" was never practically possible. The roles of the tragic lovers have traditionally been played by actors older than the adolescent characters. A look back at some notable movie and stage versions shows that "older" is a term that can vary substantially.

The latest movie version of "Romeo and Juliet" is to open in theaters Friday, with a cast that includes Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth. The play has been newly adapted for the screen by "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes.

Two high-profile productions of the play are currently running in New York -- one on Broadway, with Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad; and one off-Broadway, with Elizabeth Olsen.

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In Shakespeare's play, the female protagonist is a teenager, barely. Juliet, the daughter of the House of Capulet, is just 13. (To be more precise, she is "a fortnight and odd days" from turning 14.) Romeo, scion of the rival Monatgues, is older though his exact age isn't specified in the text. His character is often interpreted to be somewhere between 15 and 20.

Steinfeld, who received an Oscar nomination in 2011 for "True Grit," is now 16 years old, while Booth, a British actor, is now 21. (Both were younger when they shot the movie.)

On Broadway, Bloom is practically ancient at 36 while Rashad is a decade younger at 26. Olsen, playing Juliet at New York's Classic Stage Company, is 24. The age of her co-star, newcomer Julian Cihi, can't be confirmed, though he graduated from New York University's Tisch School in 2012, which would likely put him in his 20s.

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When Franco Zeffirelli released his big-screen version of "Romeo and Juliet" in 1968, much was made of the fact that the two stars were close in age to Shakespeare's characters. Olivia Hussey was 16 or 17 when she made the movie. Leonard Whiting, her costar, was a year or two older.

Going back even further, the 1936 movie version directed by George Cukor starred Leslie Howard, who strained credulity as Romeo, being in his early 40s at the time. Costar Norma Shearer was in her early 30s.

More age credible was the 1996 "Romeo + Juliet," directed by Baz Luhrmann. Leonardo DiCaprio was in his early 20s when he made the movie, while costar Claire Danes was 16 or 17.

When New York's Public Theatre produced a version of "Romeo and Juliet" in Central Park in 2007, actress Lauren Ambrose was 29 and a then-unknown Oscar Isaac was 27.

A bit of poetry often attributed to Shakespeare (though some debate it) perhaps sums it up best: "Youth is full of sport, age's breath is short; youth is nimble, age is lame; Youth is hot and bold, age is weak and cold; Youth is wild, and age is tame."


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