Playwright Hansol Jung admits that when she told Dustin Wills that she wanted him to direct her new version of Romeo and Juliet, where some of the dialogue has been rewritten to modern English, he balked. “He was, from the beginning, very against the project,” Jung says. Wills did agree to co-direct with Jung, but she admitted, “We continued to have these little spats, like why did you change this?” She then chuckled, adding, “It was so fun. I love it. I love a challenge.”
It’s a question she’s gotten many times about her work on Romeo and Juliet, and Jung’s answer is always the same: “Why not? It's not erasing what's already there. What's already there is being done so many times everywhere all the time. This is an experiment.”
The “experiment” in question is currently running Off-Broadway, produced by National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), until June 3. It features an all-Asian cast, and the company rented out Classic Stage Company’s space on 13th Street for their production. Jung’s Romeo and Juliet just had a production at Two River Theater in New Jersey. So, though people may have questioned Jung’s methods, the audiences are enjoying it. And Jung’s other Off-Broadway play, Wolf Play, got a basket of awards this season, including Outstanding Play at the Lucille Lortel Awards—so it’s been a prolific season for the playwright.
"It's been crazy, I'm so happy to be be done for a bit," Jung says from her home in Mystic, Connecticut.
Jung was initially approached to “translate” Shakespeare into modern English by the esteemed Oregon Shakespeare Festival for its Play On program—where today’s most celebrated playwrights were asked to choose a Shakespeare play and rewrite it. Since 2015, 39 Shakespeare translations have been commissioned, and the productions are being rolled out now, with these new plays being done around the country, in Europe, and even in locations as far-flung as Guam. For Jung, who is originally from Korea, translating Shakespeare is nothing new: she’s seen Romeo and Juliet in Korean and in Lithuanian.
“It's a completely different play, because they are allowed to fuck with the language and make it legible,” Jung explains. “Why not try to do that with English? It’s not going to destroy the original.”
By the time Jung got to Play On, only three plays had not been chosen by other playwrights, one of them was Romeo and Juliet. It makes sense that other writers would not want to touch everyone’s introductory Shakespeare play—everyone knows the line, “Romeo oh Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo?” But as Jung remarked, she loves a challenge.
When she set out on the project in 2016, Jung proceeded to mark every place in the original text that should be left untouched—such as when Romeo and Juliet meet, and Juliet’s monologue in the balcony scene. “It's like changing the lyrics to The Beatles,” says Jung. “I just wanted to build towards it. So by the time Juliet says, ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?’ You understand ‘wherefore’ means ‘why.’ So, I added more of that, like, contextually…like ‘soft’ means ‘wait,’ those kinds of things.”
As she dug into the text, Jung realized that just because most audience members know some lines in Romeo and Juliet, it doesn’t mean they understand everything that is spoken on stage. For example, she points out that the play is filled with humor, but most of those comedic moments fly by the audience. In Act 4, Scene 5, when Juliet takes the poison in the play, and everyone begins weeping, a band of musicians enter. That part is always cut, but Jung dug into why Shakespeare included that scene, what that scene was meant to do.
In the original, the musicians ask each other the meaning behind the song lyrics, "music with her silver sound." The punchline is, “It is ‘music with her silver sound’ because musicians have no gold for sounding.” In Jung’s version, the musicians debate the meaning of a song with lyrics that are more well-known to modern American audiences: "Purple Rain." So the question then becomes, "Why is the rain purple?" The punchline: “The rain is purple because your music is so shit, the heavens feel violated!” The night this writer went to the show, that exchange got a hearty laugh from the audience.
Why did Shakespeare include such an ostensibly pointless scene? Answers Jung: “I feel like structurally, I'm always looking at where's the tension, where's the release? I find it really hard to stay in tension for an entire story. And what I found in what Shakespeare did, with the interchanging of comedic bits and the tragic bits, was it gives release even when someone just died. You get a release out of it with this beautiful language…And so it feels like those were releases where he's like, ‘I'm still here, and I'll take care of you.’”
Suffice it to say, this production of Romeo and Juliet is using the uncut version of the play, which means it runs at a healthy two hours and 40 minutes.
Another thing that Jung learned while working on Romeo and Juliet? The play is filled with “dick jokes.” Take this servants’ exchange from the opener:
Sampson: “I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.”
Gregory: “That shows thee a weak slave, for the weakest goes to the wall.”
Sampson: “’Tis true, and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall. Therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall and thrust his maids to the wall.”
Most modern viewers will think those words are a show of brute strength. But it’s actually a big sex joke, which Jung makes clearer in her version:
Sampson: “I will tower over any boy or maid of Montagues."
Gregory: “No real man needs a tower to fight.”
Sampson: “True. That’s why women, being the weaker sex, are kept in towers. So then over Capulet’s boys, I tower, and in his maids, I thrust my tower.”
So, it’s not so much translating as clarifying. It also brings out some thematic elements of the play that have been lost: such as why the male characters talk about their manhood so often. One, it could be because they’re young men. But it could also be a commentary on masculinity, and how this hypermasculine, verbal penis-wagging contest, inevitably leads to violence. “It's this philosophy on what it is to be a man, what you are supposed to use your dick for really is at the core of a lot of the comedy, but it's also at the core of why they die, why they kill each other, or why there is such animosity. It's trying to stake out the claim for their dicks,” explains Jung bluntly. “The comedy and the tragedy revolves around these men trying to define what it is to be a man.”
That’s also why it’s been poignant for Jung, in working on the play with NAATCO, that the all-Asian cast of the show emphasizes how there’s no rhyme or reason to the violence (the actors in this production are double-cast as Capulets and Montagues). “What are they fighting about? I've seen versions where it's about race, about gender,” she says, adding that the company did play around with the idea of doing an “old world versus new world” divide. But that was scrapped because, “The point is that there is no point, there's no reason to fight. They are exactly the same. There is no difference.”
The jokes that Shakespeare included in his script just emphasize that—you have to laugh at it because it’s all so pointless. So, this version of Romeo and Juliet may be funnier than what you remember, and more bawdy. But it’s nothing new, we all just didn’t completely understand it before.
See photos from NAATCO's Romeo and Juliet below.