NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
What will be the idiom, in my modest estimation, to best define our relationship to sex during the COVID-19 pandemic? Stay home if you sick, come over if you thicc so say the boys of Tinder.
Its not quite Shakespeare or is it? Im willing to bet that if they lived in 2021, Romeo and Juliet would quickly become fluent in our contemporary language of lust and seduction. After all, sex has always been an element of Shakespeares play, although portrayals of it have changed in productions over the past 400 years, depending on trends and cultural attitudes.
So it would make sense, after the pandemic year weve had, that were in for a spate of sexy Shakespeare frilly ruff and all. And Romeo and Juliet including the lusty new filmed production that premiered last week on PBS looks like itll be the play of this spicy summer to come.
Ive already encountered other renditions in the past couple of weeks: The Public Theaters bilingual Romeo y Julieta, the Actors Theater of Louisvilles Romeo & Juliet: Louisville 2020. An interactive production is forthcoming from Englands Creation Theater.
Although a play about intimacy, yearning and death feels right for the moment, I have to admit my discomfort with all those honeyed kisses and sweet nothings: The pandemic has left me unprepared for lovers meeting at any distance closer than 6 feet.
The sexiness of Romeo and Juliet depends not just on a director but on the temperature of the times, whether the drafty climate of a chaste family dinner with Granny or the febrile blaze of a Friday night date that is set to a playlist of 90s R&B jams.
Although the Elizabethans of Shakespeares time were down for lewd wordplay and suggestive winks in the text, stage depictions of physical intimacy were a step too far. The Victorians? Stuffier than a mouth breather during allergy season, they tended to shift the story toward innocent love rather than lust.
The story of Romeo and Juliet got a movie makeover in the 1960s, however, when director Franco Zeffirelli premiered his sensual adaptation, including a famous nude love scene, during the peak of the sexual revolution.
And if you had a pulse in the 90s, you caught Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmanns wistfully romantic Romeo and Juliet, which seemed charged by the melancholic sighs of disenchanted youth appropriate for the decade of irony and grunge.
Which presents the question of where we are now. (The dull and curiously sexless 2013 Broadway production, starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad, had little to add.) Have dating apps and the sex-positive and body-positive movements brought us to a new age of uninhibitedness?
Honestly, Im not sure. Many of our austere cultural standards around sex, cuffed to religious conventions, economics and antiquated notions about gender, still haunt us behind closed doors even as much of our media uses sex as consumer currency. But a pandemic that made isolation the rule surely has changed our relationship to physical intimacy.
That not personal prudishness or naivete is why too sexy of a Romeo and Juliet, like the new filmed edition starring Jessie Buckley and Josh OConnor, leaves me scandalized, as if I didnt grow up in a household with HBO.
The fabric of the film feels cut from the central couples marital bedsheets the intimacy is that palpable. Scene after scene feels like its taking place by candlelight. The hovering camerawork peeks over shoulders to catch a kiss or embrace.
Cutting many of the plays crass euphemisms (including the nurses many opinions on matters of the heart and, well, other parts of the body), this Romeo and Juliet builds from the physical tension among the characters.
They tease one another, as Mercutio does Romeo and Benvolio in his Queen Mabs speech; then he draws in Benvolio (depicted here as his lover) for a single electric moment before promptly shoving him away.
Simon Godwins direction is tactile, obsessed with hands and the ways that an open-palmed welcome, a single-finger caress or the taut-knuckled hardness of a fist can signify romance or violence or both.
The confidential meeting of the lovers in the tussle of bodies at the Capulet shindig, the hesitant first touch of their fingers and, later, the urgent consummation none of this is surprising. Neither is it risque.
And yet, to me, it felt alarming pornographic even given how we have spent the last year painfully aware of what threats proximity could breed.
Last spring, NYC Health + Hospitals released a much-mocked guide to safe sex during the pandemic, encouraging masturbation as the most COVID-friendly alternative to, in Shakespearean terms, sheathing ones dagger. No more sweaty tangling of limbs in a dark bar, no more postdate kiss on the sidewalk outside a restaurant. Or at least not without risk.
Even as more of us get vaccinated, intimacy will probably feel like a fresh adventure, for good and for bad. Some singles are emerging from their quarantine bubbles anticipating a hot vax summer of horny hookups and experimental exploits. Others are circumspect, our social skills atrophied and our inhibitions increased in response to a lethal disease.
For the next several months, as we recover from a kind of intimacy-deprived post-traumatic stress disorder, Shakespeares sexiest play a play that links lust to violence, even death may read as extreme, even subtly subversive.
Thats the magic of the Bard, isnt it? Racy enough for reprobates and rakes, or priggishly read by a congregation of stately stiff-backs, the work is spacious enough to accommodate any disposition. I might be too shy to subscribe to Romeo and Juliets steamy OnlyFans, but, hey, there are plenty out there who arent.
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