"Romeo and Juliet: A Nove" From Pen to Performance

Author David Hewson and narrator Richard Armitage returned to Audible Studios for an in-depth discussion about their extraordinary new take on Shakespeare's classic love story, created exclusively for audio. They shared perspectives on adapting the Bard's work, why Juliet should take top billing, and why narration is a performance.

Note: Text has been edited for clarity and will not match video exactly.

Audible: David, Romeo and Juliet: A Novel marks the third Shakespearean adaptation you’ve tackled for Audible — the first two being Macbeth and Hamlet. Why did you choose the tale of star-crossed lovers as your follow-up? 

David Hewson: Why Romeo and Juliet? I think, well, first and foremost it’s a great story. It’s got love. It’s got the thriller element. It goes into the mechanics of tragedy, and you almost end up in horror in the crypt. It is a great story, but I think — I don’t know if you agree, Richard — but it’s much more than a love story. It’s often portrayed as being a love story, but it’s a lot more than that.

Richard Armitage: When I heard that it was going to be Romeo and Juliet, I wasn’t immediately thrilled — there are so many other Shakespeare plays that I thought David would tackle. But actually when I looked at it, I completely understood what you just said. I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet on stage, and I haven’t seen the scope that you found in your writing in a stage play, because there’s so much of the off-stage world that you explore. That’s one of the things that I found thrilling about your adaptation.

Audible: Given your wildly successful collaboration on Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel, did you both know from the beginning that you’d be working together on this project?

DH: I was told, very firmly, when I was starting to write this, “Don’t think you’re writing it for Richard Armitage. We know he did a great job on Hamlet, but he’s a busy guy, and he’s all over the world. We don’t even know if he’d want to do it, or what his schedule is.” So I immediately went away and wrote it with Richard in mind because, after Hamlet, why wouldn’t you? More importantly, what I learned a lot from your narration of Hamlet, is that when I write these things, I’m not a novelist anymore — I’m a dramatist. I had to try to think as a dramatist, scene by scene, think of the dialogue, think of how you would portray it.

RA: That’s interesting. I would have been furious had I not been the reader. (Laughs.) You’re right, though, and it’s one of the things that makes bells ring for me and makes it resonate for me. When I read your adaptation, it has such dramatic context, but it goes further than the cinematic, you know. It becomes a sensual experience, which is one of the things that I really appreciate about what you do.

DH: There’s a great word in German, kopfkino, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard, since you’ve spent so much time in Berlin.

RA: Kopf…?

DH: Kopfkino. It means “cinema of the head.”

RA: Right.

DH: What I’m trying to do in this is create kopfkino, because the biggest, most powerful special-effects machine in the world is the human imagination. 

RA: Yeah.

DH: If you can persuade the mind to create that movie in the head, you’ve really gone somewhere.

RA: I mean, I feel so lucky to have my imagination. It was formed through all kinds of different influences: film, music, being read to. Actually, narrating is about just tapping your imagination and speaking what you see in your mind’s eye, in your kopfkino, but it takes a great writer to make that stimulus. 

Audible: David, as an author, is it daunting for you to work with such revered source material? There are certainly purists out there who view Shakespeare’s text as sacred.

DH: I’m not a nervous kind of guy, really, but I know that I’m going to get three emails from people saying, “How dare you! Shakespeare must always be played by men in tights.” You know, that kind of thing. But it’s only ever three emails.

RA: I was wearing tights when I was narrating. You know that, don’t you?

DH: I had heard, but I didn’t feel I should share that. You mustn’t be in awe of something when you’re adapting it. I’m not trying to pay homage to Shakespeare here. I’m trying to create something that Richard can turn into great audio drama. That’s really what I’m interested in, is telling a great story that respects Shakespeare — you know, I haven’t turned Juliet into a vampire or zombie or anything — but I’m not going to feel hidebound by anything that Shakespeare’s done. Which is why anybody who thinks this story goes the way that the play does will be in for a big surprise.

RA: To add to what David just said, a lot of adaptations in this mold are reductive, and they’re designed for people that can’t get their heads around the complicated texts that Shakespeare wrote. It’s like CliffsNotes, or just reading a kind of reduced version of it so that you can understand it easily. Actually, David’s work goes way beyond that. In fact, it opens so many closed doors and explores avenues that the playwright didn’t. He pulls in beautiful lines from the original text that just suddenly resonate in the middle of a passage. That is a direct link — it’s like little blood vessels that directly link into Shakespeare’s work. I feel that Shakespeare would be really satisfied and proud of the writing. It has a theatrical feeling to it because we know we’re coming from a theater source. It’s everything Shakespeare wanted, and then some. 

Audible: From your perspective, what’s the driving force — the heart — of Romeo and Juliet: A Novel?

DH: Juliet’s the heart of this story. Really this is “Juliet and Romeo,” I think, because Juliet is the smartest person in the whole book, and she is the one who’s most in jeopardy because she’s about to be forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, with a man she hates. It’s like a death sentence for her because she is bright and intelligent, and she wants to be free to do what she wants to do. To be who she wants to be. For me, the central element of the book is to do with that question about identity: Are we who we feel ourselves to be, or are we the person who we are forced to be by society, by our family, by the world at large?

RA: I came into this thinking Juliet was a sort of modern woman in a historical context, but she’s not. It’s just that David’s writing allows you to see the interior of her mind and how she operates as a young girl, and the face she has to present because of what society places on her, the face that she has to present to her father, the restrictions. But she clearly has a very high IQ, and she understands those kinds of impositions that she has to maintain. In that respect, she’s a woman of her time, but we just get to see inside her mind, which I find fascinating.

DH: I think she genuinely doesn’t understand why she should be forced into this thing. She’s constantly saying to her father, “Look, why don’t you just listen to me? Why don’t you hear what I’m saying?” It’s the 21st century and lots of women are still asking that, aren’t they? 

RA: I’m sure women in 1499 asked the same question. They were just never allowed to voice it. They must have thought, “Wait a second. How am I not permitted to even speak? How am I not permitted to have an opinion? Why am I bound to this arranged marriage?” I think it’s really lovely that, again, by opening doors, David lets you inside of her mind so that you can really understand what she’s thinking and feeling.

Audible: What’s the most rewarding aspect of working in audio?

DH: In many ways, this is a new medium. We’re doing storytelling that mixes drama with some of the techniques of fiction. In another way, this is the earliest form of storytelling there has been, because if you go back to Homer, he wasn’t a writer, he was a poet. He was a narrator. He performed The Odyssey and The Iliad. I think that’s the kind of experience I’m trying to recreate in this writing in that it has a narrator figure. There’s also a narrator so that you know where you are within the story, but then you have characters who fit in around with the narrator. It is tricky to write, but I think it’s actually even trickier to perform, because the great thing — one of the many great things that Richard does — is that he brings this experience of being a theater actor to it. He directs himself in ways that I fail to understand and comes out with a theatrical performance that has absolutely no theatricality in it.

RA: There was a funny moment when we recorded in London because I didn’t know David was going to come in and join us to listen. It was about day three, or day two, and I’d decided to give the nurse a Brummie accent. Then I was really unsure about whether it would be something that David would approve of. I remember getting to the nurse section, and I could see David in the other studio through the glass, and I’m thinking, “Oh my God, please, please don’t be upset about this.”

DH: I remember that well, because Richard’s sitting in this glass booth, and I’m in the director’s booth on the other side, and he starts to speak, and I just sat there gob smacked because it was as if an entire repertory theater company had suddenly emerged on the other side of the glass. Not just the voices, but the whole intonation. You’ve got this picture of Verona coming out in the way he spoke. Then the nurse spoke in this very regional English accent. She’s a large woman who comes from a fishing village on Lake Garda, speaking in the accent of a Brummie housewife. It’s absolutely perfect. You can’t just hear it; you can see her. You know she’s quite a large woman. You know you wouldn’t want to mess with her, but she’s funny, as well. Actually I think she’s quite funny. There is a lot of fun in this play. This isn’t a gloomy tragedy; there’s a lot of fun and life. 

RA: As you’ve said — it was the same with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel — any opportunity in the middle of tragedy to find those glimmers of sparkling comedy, I’ll take them, because otherwise it can be a little serious. It is a very serious subject. It’s something else I loved about your characterization of Juliet, the humor that you gave her. Her observation and her sense of irony. I think it was really beautiful.

DH: I think anybody who’s had a teenage daughter will understand how easy it was to write Juliet, because she is that teenage daughter that we all know and love, and makes us want to tear our hair out. My daughter is no longer a teenager, but she’s going to kill me when she hears that part.

RA: Oh really? She’ll recognize herself?

DH: I cannot possibly comment. 

Audible: There’s such a strong sense of time and place in Romeo and Juliet: A Novel. David, how do you go about setting the scene? And what made you land on the summer of 1499? 

David Hewson: How do you set the scene? It’s really easy: I just went to Verona for a week. It was freezing cold. It was February. It was Verona Carnival. There were people walking around in medieval costume — many of whom had partaken of wine, it must be said — and I wanted to build the set for the story in my head. I went to Mantua, as well, because that’s where Romeo gets exiled to. I couldn’t write a word until I had that world, that state set in my head. That’s very important, because if I can’t see it, listeners aren’t going to be able to see it, either. I just did that through going around, making notes, reading books, and taking photographs.

Why 1499? 1499 is almost the holy year of 1500. It is the beginning of the Renaissance. There are parallels with today, in the sense that it’s just when people have discovered how to print books, so there is this flood of new knowledge coming on the market — as with the internet — which really fires up Juliet, and, to an extent, Romeo. I don’t want to push the parallels too much, but there are other parallels with today. I wanted this to be a story about young people in a time of hope and danger, and 1499 seemed exactly that because you had all the wonderful art of the Renaissance coming along. You had books. But you also had the Borgia pope in Rome doing all sorts of nasty things. And you had threats of the Turkish Empire coming in from the east, trying to invade Italy. It just seemed like just a great, great moment to set the story. 

RA: Well, who doesn’t want to listen to that book? As I said before, it’s a sensual experience, and I mean that you don’t just see this with your eyes. It’s about how things taste and smell. I didn’t travel to Italy for this project, but I have been lucky enough to go. I remember going to Verona and stepping out of the air-conditioned car into heat and this incredible fragrance because of the bougainvillea that’s everywhere. I have that somewhere deep in my brain, but David’s writing just pulls it out. Then you go and step forward, and describe what it is you’re thinking and feeling. Hopefully, the audience can smell it and taste it, too. 

Audible: Five hundred years later, we’re finally given a reason for the vendetta between the Capulets and Montagues! Could you say a little about that?

DH: You know, Shakespearean drama doesn’t have to tell you “why” very often — it just says, “This is how it is.” We know that the Capulets and Montagues are at each others’ throats. There’s a vendetta. What happened? We have no idea. So I had to come up with a reason why they hated one another. What I came up with is to do with the wine industry, which is huge in Verona. To the east you have a wonderful grape called garganega, which is used for wines like Soave, one of my favorite Italian wines. To the west you have a lot of planting of a grape called trebbiano, which is a more common grape. Basically, one of the houses has the monopoly on the trebbiano grape, and the other one has the monopoly on the garganega grape, and they’ve fallen out over grapes. So often with big arguments, they start over really small things. That’s part of the practical job of creating a story like this — you just have to establish what caused the vendetta and then you can move on and use it later on.

RA: Now I’ve got an image in my head of Nurse angrily treading grapes in a huge vat.

DH: Which wouldn’t take very long then, I don’t think.

Audible: What characters did you most enjoy bringing to life for this project? 

DH: Friar Laurence on stage is often just an old duffer who kind of muddles his way through making very odd decisions that you don’t understand why. Again, I had to give him a reason to behave the way he does, so I made him actually a bit younger. He’s middle-aged, and his background is formed by a real-life incident in Italian history when hundreds of men were massacred in a town called Otranto. He survived and became a friar because he wanted to do good in the world. I think he’s a more rounded individual, and I think it’s a bit more resonant than he is sometimes on stage. 

RA: You have to create that biography for your characters, so if you are playing Friar Laurence, then creating that enables you to play a fully rounded character, which is not necessarily what Shakespeare would have been as interested in — but that’s what fascinates me, as an actor. As you bring in each character, you start to think, “Oh, I never saw the character like this before. I’d love to play him.” I’d love to play Friar Laurence now because of what David wrote.

I think the character that I enjoyed the most was probably, apart from Juliet — because the challenge in itself to play a 16-year-old girl with this voice was kind of tricky, and to pull it off was something that worried me, seeing as she’s the heroine — I enjoyed Mercutio a lot. I think there’s such dark humor in him, and he spends most of the time inebriated. I really enjoyed that bit.

Also, the wooing scene in the garden — the opportunity for me to step into Romeo’s shoes and woo Juliet through this incredible poetry, this poetic mind, and then have her kind of face him in quite a surprising way. One of the surprising parts of the audiobook is that she doesn’t receive the wooing in the way that one would expect, so I really got a huge pleasure out of that.        

Audible: Richard, you touched on this briefly, but as a male actor with a deep voice, how did you approach performing Juliet?          

RA: It’s something that I just had to pitch a little bit higher to give her air in the voice, and it’s there in the writing. You just have to imagine what she’s feeling. Apart from distinguishing her from other female characters, it was just about weightlessness. I felt like, as a 16-year-old, she has a weightlessness, but she slowly finds her gravity by the end of the piece. She’s become a woman, and that was interesting to me.

DH: It is really interesting because he manages to portray both the fragility and the uncertainty of her, and this fact that there’s real steel down there, as well. She is not going to be a pushover in the end, and she is the one who is going to drive that story. Juliet, even in the play, is steelier than she’s often thought to be. She isn’t that simpering teenager we sometimes think. She does fight back from time to time.  You have to remember that Shakespeare had a terrible drawback when it comes to dealing with women — at the time it was illegal for women to perform on the British stage. He couldn’t use female actors, which means that no woman ever turned to him and said, “A woman would never do that.” I’m sure, as Richard knows, in real-life acting these days, that probably happens quite a lot. 

RA: Yeah.

DH: That is a real drawback for him. We’ve had to pay a lot of attention to the female characters and fill them out, sometimes by finding things that are hidden in the text there, and sometimes just by re-imagining them. Juliet, she is the threatened person in this story. She is the one facing the death sentence, and she is really smart and she knows it. She’s going to do whatever she can to avoid that death sentence. Once you realize that, that starts to shape her character.

RA: You can never really apply a modern psychology to the characters. It’s always post-Freud, and not that Freud is the benchmark of psychoanalysis, but there is a sense of she’s exploring her own mind in relation to the world around her. I think that’s just infinitely fascinating beyond this audiobook and beyond the play. Actually, in relation to the things that we’ve talked about, as I was struggling to find that voice, perhaps she is, too, because she doesn’t want to speak like that. She doesn’t want to be weightless. She wants to be listened to and reasoned with and understood and acknowledged, and even seen, because it’s as if she’s not seen. She’s almost invisible. 

Audible: Why are Romeo and Juliet so drawn to one another? And do you think, given their ages, the love they feel is actually profound? 

DH: I think they understand what need is, and love comes out of need. From Juliet’s point of view, she needs to escape the fate she’s going towards. Romeo offers an escape route, and I think that’s in the back of her head, because she is a smarty. From Romeo’s point of view, he’s one of these guys who has to have a girlfriend, and he’s failed miserably to get one so far, perhaps because he keeps spouting poetry, but there is need on both their parts, and love will spring out of some kind of mutual recognition — of mutual need.

                        

Love is an important theme in it, but it isn’t puppy love. It isn’t just infatuation. It is about a kind of mutual recognition, a mutual like. They obviously enjoy each other’s company. She finds him funny, and I don’t think she’s found many things funny in her life, and he just thinks she’s wonderful. They’re kind of well matched in that way.

RA: That was the thing that surprised me most, the idea that Romeo is perhaps conditioned to fit a mold as much as Juliet is. That in order to be a lover in the Italian sense — the commedia — he has to be the Renaissance man that is poetic rather than the warmonger.  Ultimately, he changes after the killing of Tybalt. You see him become a man, and you see him understand the seriousness of that connection with her. It becomes almost like a death knell to him and a lifeline at the same time. Also, there’s realizing the stakes that their love has cost them. They both kind of grow up through their love experience, and yet it’s still never extinguished. In fact, it’s intensified. 

Audible: How would you describe the process of turning words on a page into an immersive listening experience?   

DH: I think the thing when you listen to Richard performing this — and that word is important, because it’s not narration, it is “performance” — it sounds so natural. It sounds so easy. You know, when I watched him recording it in this glass booth, he did about an hour and a half, and at the end of that I was a drained, sweating wreck. I just wanted to have a nap. But he just walks out, has a sandwich, then goes back in, and does some more. He does it so easily. He makes it very easy for you to fall into this world of 1499 Verona, and this story of love and hate and violence and revenge, and perhaps, in the end, some kind of escape. Once you start listening to it, it’s very difficult to stop.

RA: It’s a little train ride that you get on, and once it takes you, it takes you. My biggest problem is that I find it hard to sit still, so when we get into scenes like the fight sequence in the square, I’ll start waving my arms around and bumping the mic. Even when your clothes rustle — I have to wear sweatpants and a t-shirt because clothing makes noise. I’m constantly being told, “I can hear your clothes. I can hear the chair squeaking. I can hear your ankle cracking.” That’s the hardest part for me. When it gets very animated, I get animated as well. 

But that’s part of the challenge: to still maintain the kind of energy of a scene like that, which is fast and frenetic, whilst being still. I’ve been lucky enough, in my work as an actor, I’ve had many sword fights in theatrical terms on stage and on film, so I kind of know the energy that’s involved. But having to sit still and do it is a whole other challenge.

Audible: Why should people listen to Romeo and Juliet: A Novel?

RA: It’s a story set in 1499 in the center of this cultural Renaissance in Italy, and something’s in the air. It’s dangerous and it’s potent. It’s highly charged with sexuality. And it’s got a female character bang at the center of it who is about to probably change the world, I would say.

DH: I think even if you’ve not listened to an audio story before, you should give it a try, because it is like having that movie play in your head. This is IMAX between your ears, and Richard brings these characters and this world alive in the most extraordinary way — you really feel you’re there. I hope that it will introduce people to the idea of audio performance, because it’s a fast-growing new art form that still quite a lot of people haven’t yet discovered. You start to realize the power and the scope of it by listening to this kind of work, I hope.

Audible: On a final note, what makes telling stories in audio so special? 

RA: I think it comes back to that very basic place of being read to. I was lucky that I was read to. There’s a reason why we’re read to, and there’s a certain time of the day when we’re read to. Usually, as children, we’re read to before we go to sleep because — I don’t know where that ritual comes from — but what happens is that you fall asleep and then you dream, and you go into that … What was that German word you used?

DH: Kopfkino.

RA: Kopfkino, yeah.

DH: “Head cinema.”

RA: The scope in the subconscious that is stimulated by storytelling like this, I get it from David’s writing. I get my kopfkino stimulated and then I just describe what I hear. It’s tapping into something that’s sort of culturally very deep, I think. 

DH: It’s not just writers who should be thinking about this medium. I think scriptwriters — people who work in film, people who work in the theater — have got as much to contribute, if not more, than novelists, because I’m very aware the skills that I use as a novelist are often useless, or even get in the way of this kind of work. I have to put them to one side and think about the script. When I first met Richard, when he was recording it, my first words to him were, “This is a script. I’ve given it to you. It’s yours now.” I want him to interpret it. When I write a novel, I’m everything. That’s it; it’s finished. But I very much want to write a script here that he can take and work his magic upon. That is not what being a novelist is about, so I’d say to people in film and TV and theater, “Think about this.” Just as much as I would to anybody who’s writing novels.

Tags

Hear the fruits of their collaboration

Up Next

A Heart-To-Heart With Richard Armitage

We sat down with the actor and narrator of "Romeo and Juliet: A Novel" to talk about this bold new take on Shakespeare's classic tale, the darker side of love, and why there's nothing like listening to a great story.