Romeo and Juliet: The Audiobook

*** SPOILERS ***  Being a purist at heart, I was reluctant to buy the audiobook of Romeo and Juliet: A Novel.  After hearing some clips, though, I just couldn’t resist a chance to lose myself in the voice of Richard Armitage for 11 hours!  Loved the voice — was not as fond of the new story.

image001-copyRomeo and Juliet: A Novel is an adaptation by David Hewson of the classic story told in William Shakespeare’s play.  It is available on Audible.com or on iTunes.  I like to listen to audiobooks with my iPhone plugged into my car’s aux outlet, surrounding myself with sound. I have to say, though, that around the halfway mark in R&J, I had to take a break and work myself up to going back to it.  The changes in the characters’ personalities bothered me that much.  Some of my thoughts about the story and the recording follow (with spoilers).

What works for me:

  • Richard Armitage’s voice – Well, obviously!  Deep and rich with clear enunciation, his voice makes driving in rush-hour traffic so much better. (I like to hear him read a long story, rather than something like Classic Love Poems, lovely though that was.)
  • The performance – Richard Armitage approaches the reading of an audiobook not as a narration, but as a performance.  In R&J, he ably demonstrates his skill at conveying depth of emotion, without requiring the listener to see his face or his movements. The voices of the characters in R&J are all distinct from each other –I often found myself forgetting that this was just one person narrating, rather than a full cast of characters performing a play.  And I rarely thought that a voice sounded like one from a previous audiobook — although I thought I detected notes of Uriah Heep in the voice of Mercutio now and then.
  • The enunciation – In particular, I love the way that Richard Armitage says, “pretty” (and to a lesser extent, “city”).  **swoon** There’s just something about it…
  • The modernization of speech – The writing makes the speech patterns modern, without being overly casual, which does in fact make the dialogue easier to understand without “dumbing it down”.
  • The dialogue between the male characters – This flows really well, particularly between Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio, and is interesting and believable.  Their relationship is fleshed out much more than in Shakespeare’s version, and shows a trio of young guys, each with quite different personality and motivation, enjoying each others’ company.
  • The fight scenes – These are exciting and easy to follow, making it very clear who is attacking, fending off, or stabbing, and the reasons why each action and consequence are happening.  They are actually easier to follow than as written in the play.
  • The backstories of the characters – Again, these are much more detailed than in Shakespeare’s version, which makes the motivations clearer.  Examples are Friar Laurence, with a rich backstory linking him to the apothecary that Romeo later encounters, and Tybalt, who was orphaned and then raised by the Capulets as their own. Also, the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues is well-explained and linked both to the mens’ former youthful friendship and to their respective wine businesses.
  • Hewson’s Author’s Notes – His voice is quite nice to listen to, and it is interesting to hear his thoughts behind the story choices he made.

What doesn’t work for me:

  • Romeo and Juliet themselves – Unfortunately.  And this was a big problem for me and was why I needed to take a break in the middle.  In the Shakespeare version, Juliet is not quite 14 and Romeo is presumably only a little older.  In Hewson’s version, Juliet is almost 17, is intelligent and educated, and knows what she wants from life. Romeo, in contrast, is portrayed as a head-in-the-clouds lover of poetry who seems to be very flighty in moving so quickly from Rosaline (said by Mercutio to be promiscuous) to Juliet.  I just do not find it believable that this quite mature young woman would fall for this flighty Romeo at first sight and follow through with all the resulting actions! The necessary innocence of the play’s relationship is just not there. And Juliet quite wantonly straddles Romeo in the garden on the night they meet.  What???
  • Paris being a much older, somewhat lecherous man – For me this takes away from the tragedy, as in the play he is a youth who feels the loss of Juliet keenly.  The audiobook even has a scene with Paris pawing at the “dead” Juliet which is verging into necrophilia!
  • Villainizing Tybalt and downplaying Mercutio’s role –Tybalt becomes an uncontrollable hot-head who even had tried in the past to bed his own cousin, Juliet! He is made to be the one who provoked the fight with Mercutio, instead of Mercutio drawing first. So, in the audiobook, it is almost as if Tybalt gets what he deserves, instead of his death being tragic.
  • The Italian accent – Apparently, Romeo asks Isabella d’Este (sister-in-law to Lucrezia Borgia) for a job, which in itself is kind of a weird detour. Richard Armitage throws in an Italian accent, which to me actually sounds like Scottish Italian.  (Not an expert, here.  Just my impression.)  In the behind-the-scenes video Armitage smilingly says, “And I put a little Italian voice in there, just for my own pleasure.” On the other hand, I enjoyed the rolling of the “r” in the various Italian words he says elsewhere throughout the story.
  • The dream sequences – I don’t get the point of the listener being inside Juliet’s head while she is in a death-like state.  It doesn’t feel true to me (could that even happen?) and doesn’t add anything to the story for me.
  • “I am me and only me” – This, Juliet repeats over and over again to herself while she is under the effects of the poison.  It is really, really annoying!  And doesn’t add anything to the story for me, although maybe it does lead to the ending that Hewson has written.
  • Friar John’s trip into plague country – Yes, this does happen in the play.  But here it is much too detailed and in the end he actually makes a decision not to take the letter to Romeo because he believes that Friar Lawrence is wrong in helping them. In the play, it is one of the many errors that lead to the tragedy, not a voluntary act.
  • The ending – Okay, so Romeo still dies and the feud is healed.  But Juliet lives.  And actually doesn’t seem all that heartbroken about Romeo’s death.  No, she’s now going to go off and make her way in the world the way she sees fit — maybe as a girl and maybe as a boy.  What???  So how is this now the greatest love story ever told?  In Hewson’s Author’s Note he says that he has “…added much that’s new or changed. Including a different ending to Shakespeare’s traditional reign of corpses to close an Elizabethan tragedy. Why? …Because that’s what adaptation entails.”  Hmmm.  I wouldn’t have thought that adaptation entails such drastic changes to the central story.

I did go back and have a read through Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  It’s been a really long time since I’ve read it. And I had never read it purely for pleasure before. It’s a different experience than when you have to analyse the meaning behind each unfamiliar word or phrase in order to do well in an English class!

Finally, I did enjoy listening to Richard Armitage, but I would have preferred a story much closer to the Shakespeare version.  While Hewson’s writing is good, his version of the story might be more enjoyable to someone who did not know the Shakespeare version.

14 thoughts on “Romeo and Juliet: The Audiobook

  1. Pingback: Really even-handed fan review of Richard Armitage / Romeo & Juliet | Me + Richard Armitage

  2. I also enjoyed Romeo & Juliet much more this time around (the play) and thought, it’s still not a great play but it was wasted on fourteen year olds.

    I appreciated the spoilers because it confirms what I’d read earlier. I agree with you — in order for the story to work, R & J both have to die; that’s *why* it’s (paradoxically) considered such a great love story. On the whole question of adaptation — Hewson can adapt whatever he likes but then we have to decide what to do with it. To me what would be attractive about an R&J adaptation would not be a rewrite of a modern Juliet (which kind of kills the effort to educate the listener about the context for me — okay, great, we have to understand what it’s like in 15th c Italy but then we plop this modern, decontextualized character into that atmosphere?) but rather a look at the story more coherently from Juliet’s perspective in situ, i.e., the Juliet of the play. If I want a story with a modern female sensibility I don’t choose Shakespeare as a source. There are so many other options.

    I think Hewson’s in a sort of difficult position as a writer. It’s not an adaptation with literary expectations or political implications (a la West Side Story) or something that picks up on aspect of the story (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, spinning off of Hamlet). That leaves him without many interesting choices IMO. He doesn’t want to be clichéd but the whole play has, in the intervening four hundred plus years, turned into a cliché, so he has to change something. I think I’m particularly not the audience for this kind of thing because of the historical component.

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    • The more I thought about what I’d listened to in the audiobook, the more annoyed I got, to tell you the truth. I agree with you that it would have been more interesting to have delved into the Juliet of the play and what her motivations were, because that is fairly thin in the play. But he chose to make Juliet very strong and independent, which didn’t fit with what happened, and wouldn’t have fit with the times. And it was at the expense of any respect we might have had for Romeo and his motivations.
      I haven’t listened to Hewson’s Hamlet. Given my reaction to Hewson’s R&J, what’s your recommendation on Hamlet, if you listened to it?

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      • I did listen to it — several times. I had planned to write about it and then didn’t (I was in the middle of a move). It’s not as extreme an adaptation (the plot remains basically unchanged). It was co-written with a Shakespeare scholar, and that might have played some role in limiting the number of changes (not sure); Hewson writes very successful thrillers when he’s not doing these Audible audiobooks, and to some extent that was the model they applied to Hamlet. So it’s heavy on the action scenes and light on what I love about Hamlet — the dialogues, the philosophical questions. It has a lot of added historical context which might be interesting if you weren’t aware of it.

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  3. See, I just don’t do audiobooks well, even if they are narrated by Richard Armitage… I have never been able to listen to a whole audiobook, just excerpts here and there. I have also never been a huge Romeo & Juliet fan, so, as much as I love Richard, I guess I’ll be skipping this one…

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      • I really don’t mind his voice in my ear, I love his voice! 🙂 I just can’t bear to listen to a long story being read out like that, I’d rather read it myself with my own text interpretation in my head, or actually see it played out on a screen. I see it as a failing in a way that I can’t enjoy an audiobook (or possibly a radio play). Maybe one day, when I’m old and my eyesight fails me, I will feel very differently. 🙂

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