ROMEO vs. JULIA [ROMEO vs. JULIET] @ Helsinki, Finland, 2015Adaptation

  • Nely Keinanen

ROMEO vs. JULIA [ROMEO vs. JULIET]. Adaptation by Lauri Sipari and Liisa Urpelainen. Directed by Laura Jäntti for KOM Theatre, Helsinki, Finland. 3 February, 2015.

Reviewed by Nely Keinänen


Romeo (Erkki Saarela) and Juliet (Marja-Leena Kouki)


The blurb for Lauri Sipari and Liisa Urpelainen’s Romeo vs. Juliet reads as follows: “Romeo and Juliet die in the tomb; that is tragedy. But what if things turned out differently, what if the young lovers escaped from Verona and made it to Mantua and started a family: what would come of that—drama, comedy, farce?” In Laura Jäntti’s lovely production the answer turns out to be more complicated.

The basic premise of the adaptation is simple: Romeo and Giulietta escape to Mantua, have four daughters (Miranda, Rosalind, Isabella, and Bianca), and then like so many modern couples, divorce. Twenty-five years and nine months later (Giulietta does a quick calculation), they accidentally meet at the Mantua railway station, when her train to Rome (where she’s heading to attend the christening of her daughter Isabella’s youngest child) and his train to Milan (where’s he’s attending to business) are delayed. Stuck together on a bench at the railway station, they reminisce about their lives, loves, children, opportunities lost and seized. Details from Shakespeare’s play nicely surface in the modern context, e.g. Giulietta became a honeymoon travel agent, arranging for foreigners to get married in Verona (and in a nice metatheatrical moment, Romeo says that people who want to get married in Verona didn’t read the play to the end).

Romeo, we learn, has been something of a philanderer, whose affair with Paola destroys their marriage, and who later marries Pippa, who requests that Romeo not stay in contact with his daughters. Romeo thus loses touch with his three elder daughters, though Bianca, the youngest, something of a rebel herself, has kept in touch, feeding both parents tidbits about the other’s life. Thus Giulietta knows that Romeo is currently seeing Loretta, whom Romeo does not initially wish to discuss, though he later reveals that Loretta has left him because he used her money “beyond the agreed-upon boundaries.” In a heartbreaking sequence, Romeo asks Giulietta to bury him when he dies, scattering his ashes in the wind (the ever practical Giulietta wonders why Loretta doesn’t do it). A bit later, Giulietta bursts into tears at the thought that Romeo’s life is falling apart and her daughter Bianca hates her, and Romeo comforts her by singing a song they used to sing to their children when they cried, “tiritomba all’aria va.” At the end of the play, Giulietta tells Romeo to try to make amends with “Lorelei” (Giulietta comically refuses to remember the name).  But then Romeo suggests that he could change plans and accompany Giulietta to Rome to see his children, and she agrees. “Just think,” he says, “The whole way to Rome. Together.” Her response is perhaps less than perfectly encouraging: “Sleep if you get tired. I’ve got a book” (she’s reading Anna Karenina). Unfortunately, in the production I saw, the director wanted to leave open whether or not Romeo accompanies Giulietta to Rome, so she has them exit in opposite directions. At least for me, this completely changed the ending, suggesting that Romeo chooses not to accompany Giulietta to Rome after all, and their story is over. In the authors’ version (which is being used in the production at the Karlova Teater in Estonia, autumn 2015), they leave together, so anything can happen–on the train, or later.



Romeo (Erkki Saarela) and Juliet (Marja-Leena Kouki)


Starting and ending the adaptation, and interspersed in flashes throughout, are snippets from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, here presented in Lauri Sipari’s excellent Finnish translation. These juxtapositions of Shakespearean verse and Sipari/Urpilainen’s prose are very effective, as in this example where Giulietta and Romeo recall the last moments of their marriage:



You carried your suitcase straight to Pippa’s –



/Banishèd –/



– so it wasn’t just a one-night’s stand.



/There is no world without Verona walls,

But purgatory, torture, hell itself.



It seemed you didn’t even get it. I remember that night. . . I was afraid that …



Heaven is here,

Where Juliet lives; and every cat and dog

And little mouse, every unworthy thing,

Live here in heaven and may look on her;

But Romeo may not—he is banishèd!



Your car stood at the bus stop for hours, even after it got dark …



More courtship lives

In carrion flies than Romeo. They may seize

On the white wonder of dear Juliet’s hand

And steal immortal blessing from her lips,

Who, even in pure and vestal modesty,

Still blush.


Through these remembered moments, Romeo and Giulietta also re-live in the present scenes from their youth: for example, a bottle of limoncello bought at the railway station becomes the poison Juliet drinks. In the closing sequence, Romeo sees the seemingly-dead Juliet holding the limoncello bottle, but she wakes up and tells him not to drink, and the adaptation ends with the words “To Mantua.”



Romeo (Erkki Saarela) and Juliet (Marja-Leena Kouki)


Marja-Leena Kouki’s Juliet and Erkki Saarela’s Romeo move seamlessly between their younger and older selves, making the years come or disappear with a slight shift in posture or voice, the putting on of reading glasses or a scarf. I found both performances incredibly moving. Older Romeo needed to urinate rather frequently, giving Juliet time to look at him as he shuffled away. That Juliet may have still felt a spark for Romeo could be seen in the way she reapplied her lipstick after saying she’d rather not talk about Pippa, and him for her in the way he slowly circled in closer to her on the bench. Sari Salmela’s very simple set, a bench at the front of the stage, large panels onto which were occasionally projected photographs at the back, kept the focus squarely on the actors.

With this production Marja-Leena Kouki was celebrating her 50th year as an actress, and the production has toured all over Finland. I will be translating this little gem of an adaptation in early 2016, and hopefully it can become known to a wider audience.


Photo credit: Noora Geagea

Nely Keinanen

Author: Nely Keinanen

Nely Keinänen is a university lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Helsinki, where she teaches Shakespeare, British Literature and Translation. Her publications include Authority of Experience in Early Modern England, co-edited with Maria Salenius, and Shakespeare Suomessa [Shakespeare in Finland] a collection of essays by translators, directors, and actors. She is currently editing George Peele’s Old Wives Tale for the Queen’s Men Editions. Nely also translates modern Finnish drama into English, including three Shakespeare spinoffs (Juha Lehtola's Spinning Othello, Jari Juutinen's Juliet, Juliet! and Lauri Sipari and Liisa Urpelainen's Romeo vs. Juliet). She is our Associate Editor for Finland.