Anyone who’s a writer, filmmaker, or former student in a high school English class for that matter, puts Shakespeare on a pedestal. But for his new play “These Paper Bullets,” playwright Rolin Jones wasn’t afraid to toy with — and re-think — the work of the Bard of Avon.
Described as a "modish ripoff of William Shakespeare’s 'Much Ado About Nothing,'" Jones's play takes Shakespeare’s comedy about love and manners and sets it in the swinging ‘60s. But as if adapting Shakespeare wasn’t enough, Jones also decided to bring on Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong to revamp some other British geniuses for the play’s music: The Beatles.
Rolin Jones spoke with the Frame’s John Horn about Shakespeare’s modern-day relevance, working with Billie Joe Armstrong and why not to take Shakespeare’s work too seriously.
So, first a little personal history: I was a theater student in college, and I know “Much Ado About Nothing” fairly well. At what point do you think “Much Ado” needs an overhaul — a top-to-bottom rebuilding?
There are things in that play that no one probably wants to see anymore. Especially if you were a woman of any age. At some point, you’d be like, “What the hell is going on in this crazy play?”
You think “Much Ado About Nothing” was a little misogynistic?
Well, no, I think it was for its time. And that was awhile back, and things have happened... There’s that. There’s also a lot of plotting that is a little odd for our modern mind. If you go see “Much Ado” and you’re deep into the third or fourth act, there are literally three scenes where the audience knows everything. Thirteen of the 15 characters know everything, and you’re watching two people come around to knowledge you already have... It’s some hard rowing at that point.
But there is a conceit in “Much Ado” that is very smart — if we can give Mr. Shakespeare his props. And that is he has two couples in the play, Hero and Claudio, and Beatrice and Benedick. Both of them should be together, but both of them are not together for very different reasons. And that I suspect is what you found appealing in terms of an adaptation: What does bring a couple together and apart?
Well, there’s two different versions of that love story. One is that young freaky love that is, you know, we saw each other from across the room and we lost our minds. In the Shakespeare play, Claudio and Hero, they don’t say a word to each other and they’re in... Clearly they love each other right at the beginning of the play, even though they’re doing anything they can to deny it. Because literally, it takes one sentence from their friends to go “Oh my god, I’ve been dying for that.”
What Shakespeare did very very well, those Beatrice and Benedick scenes are some of the best things he ever wrote — dramas or tragedies or histories. They’re really quite astonishing and really lovely. There’s one messy, sloppy, crazy scene in there, the quote-unquote "Chapel Scene," that’s just about as modern and as nutty as possible.
Let’s talk about the music. You were collaborating with Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day on this. What were your initial conversations about this collaboration? What did you guys want to do together?
Well, I was in the middle of doing the screenplay version of “American Idiot,” which is the screenplay version of the Broadway show based on the album he had written way back when. And we got this commission from Yale Rep. And I was like, I’ll call him, he’s never going to say yes... No one’s going to get paid, and why would he ever do it? And I called him up and I tried to tell him what “Much Ado” was about, and I need someone to write some Beatle-y tunes. And he was like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll do it.” Click, and he hung up the phone...
So I actually flew up to Oakland to solidify the deal. And we met at this restaurant, and in between him being bombarded by fans over and over again, I just described to him what “Much Ado” was about. And I went on babbling for like 25 minutes. And he was relatively silent and at some point he just said, “OK, let me get this straight. You’re going to rewrite Shakespeare and I’m going to rewrite the the Beatles?” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much it.” And he was like, “All right, what the hell, I got three weeks. Let’s do it.”
Do you think it’s difficult for modern audiences to engage with Shakespeare in a meaningful way? Does it feel like an antiquity with the language at this point?
Shakespeare, look, that dude wrote 36 plays... It’s a language play any time you go to see Shakespeare. So it takes 15 minutes for the audience to sort of warm up and get it. But, there’s a reason why that stuff is still going on.
Clearly, the tragedies are probably where he threw the most of his A material. The comedies, you know, they’re all “Three’s Company” episodes... But otherwise, that’s the thing where you can get a little happy and be a little less, you know, religious about what you’re going to change with Shakespeare.
Because he was doing the same thing — he was ripping off plots, he wrote for specific actors, and he said, "let’s put some asses in the seats and let’s have a great old time." I think that’s what we attempted to do to... If he were alive, I think he’d be pleased. I think he’d be like, “Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to do.”