Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has seen many adaptations over the years. However, one near-constant has been casting the star-crossed lovers in Hollywood’s unrealistic body image.
With the Eastern Front Theatre premiere of Stevey Hunter’s contemporary adaptation, retold from Juliet’s perspective, that is about to change.
“In this version, she’s fat,” says Hunter.
Grown out of their struggles with body image as a young theatre artist, the Halifax-based playwright set out to reclaim the role of Juliet in more realistic terms.
“When I was going to theatre school and after graduating and auditioning for things, I thought Juliet was a role that would be fun to play,” says Hunter. “But as someone who is plus-sized, I thought, who is going to cast me as Juliet?”
“I really loved Shakespeare, but I had never seen a fat person in an ingenue role before, and I just wrote her off,” they continue. “So, it was partially society, but also partly myself.”
I grew up thinking that I wasn’t good enough because of my body size. So, while this is a contemporary retelling of Romeo and Juliet, it’s also a version where we also get to see Juliet fall in love with herself. – Fat Juliet playwright Stevey Hunter
When Hunter told Eastern Front Theatre’s artistic director what they were working on, Kat McCormack was immediately sold on the idea as she too had a tough time relating to Juliet growing up.
“I always struggled with body image, and by the time someone did profess their love for me, I was so ashamed of my body that it was hard to accept,” says McCormack, who also directs the show.
Despite thinking Juliet out of reach because of how they looked, Hunter decided to dig a little further, realizing there was more to the young Capulet than they thought.
“If you look at her text, she actually thinks things through and is very direct,” says Hunter. “For the most part, I hadn’t seen her portrayed like that because so often it’s played by very small women who I think are also forced and suggested to play into her fragility.”
It was part of the reason Hunter also wanted to give Juliet a more prominent voice, writing Fat Juliet from her perspective.
“It became this opportunity to see where else this character could go,” says Hunter. “What are the parts of this character we don’t get to usually see in this most famous love story of all time.”
McCormack also found herself drawn to Hunter’s focus.
“I’ve worked on so many Shakespeares and can tell you from experience that the female roles usually entail getting murdered, married, or just running into the men’s scenes in a panic to push the plot along,” she says. “So the idea of fleshing out her character and making her someone more relatable to modern audiences was a very exciting challenge.”
Helping to tell Juliet’s story are three other characters.
“In this version, Tybalt plays the role Mercutio often does, so you get to see more of Tybalt in this story,” explains Hunter. “And then I’ve rewritten the nurse character as Angel, who is a non-binary friend slash confidant. And then, of course, we have Romeo”.
Told in a mix of modern and early modern English, the classical text comes in the more intense moments. “When they’re falling in love or when there is still more anger,” says Hunter.
“I’ve tried to make it as smooth as possible so that all of a sudden you’re not getting this flowery language that doesn’t necessarily fit the world because we really created a world that is quite timeless,” they continue.
Starting life as a solo show, it isn’t surprising to know Hunter plays Juliet in their play, providing them with an opportunity at a role they didn’t feel they would have a chance at in a typical production.
“Because I am the playwright, I get full control of the aspects that I want to expand on,” they say.
It has also allowed Hunter to work with three of their best friends, including real-life partner Peter Sarty who will play Romeo.
“It feels really great to have someone who is very safe to explore this relationship with,” says Hunter.
Part of feeling secure with their Romeo also comes from another layer in Hunter’s adaptation in examining the power dynamics between the two titular characters.
“We’re also exploring a relationship with a young girl who has never been with anyone before this older boy,” they say. “There may only be a three-year difference between them, and while it may not seem like a lot, it is actually quite a difference.”
Rounding out the cast is fellow theatre school alum Nathan Simmons who plays Tybalt and Lou Campbell in the role of Angel. “Lou and I are both non-binary trans artists and having that element in the room is really great,” says Hunter.
As the playwright, Hunter enjoys being in the rehearsal room, saying that as an improviser, they are not “precious” about their writing and instead intends to make the show the best it can be.
“I think it’s really worked to our benefit to have me wearing both those hats, at least in that first week [of rehearsal] so that we could make the necessary changes,” they say.
Ultimately, Hunter says this Romeo and Juliet is the show they wish their mother had taken them to when they were sixteen.
“I grew up thinking that I wasn’t good enough because of my body size,” they say. “So, while this is a contemporary retelling of Romeo and Juliet, it’s also a version where we also get to see Juliet fall in love with herself.”
“All in all, the show is a fun romp of a retelling, and I hope people will have a good time and leave feeling a little bit more empowered to love themselves,” says McCormack.
Fat Juliet plays at the Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth from October 22 through October 31. Tickets for the cabaret-style seating of socially distanced tables for two and four are available on a sliding scale pay-what-you-can pricing, starting at $20 per person. Visit easternfronttheatre.com for tickets and information.