Return of the Canadian Act

When this site re-launched last year, and I joined the roster of contributors, my first post was a review of the opening of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Well, this past Monday was the opening day of the new season, and here I go again. I was hoping to link to last year’s reviews, but they are still in limbo from the conversion; hopefully we’ll get that resolved soon, and I’ll be able to link to all the reviews together before the end of the season.

In the meantime . . .

From the opening moments of Des McAnuff’s production of Romeo and Juliet, we are reassured that we’re in the hands of a director who knows what he’s doing. The prologue is delivered by a friar in full habit – Friar Lawrence, we presume, correctly – and immediately thereupon we are plunged into the feuding city of Verona, transposed to a mythical Italy of the mind, run by multi-racial clans of gangsters who alternate sipping espresso with blasting away at each other with small arms. (There’s even a baby carriage that gets caught in the cross-fire – shades of the Battleship Potemkin.) The Prince silences the opening battle with a blast of submachine gun fire, the crowd disperses, and Romeo slouches on in jeans and a leather jacket, to whine to Benvolio about his heartless Rosaline.

It’s an opening guaranteed to get the pulse rate up, and to make the violence of the setting more immediate and terrifying as, too often, it isn’t when the setting is in period. But there’s one problem: the love story cannot survive an updating to a contemporary setting. West Side Story is a marvelous show, but it is not a show about two lovers on the cusp between adolescent and adult love, about growing into manhood and womanhood through love, about the limits of passion and their transcendence. It’s a show about two urban tribes, about kids in the city, about two decent kids who are trapped by a world they didn’t create and can’t transcend. In a modern setting, the feud takes over. And from the opening sequence of this production of R&J, I worried the same would be true here.

But director Des McAnuff was way ahead of me. As Romeo and his pals prepare to crash the Capulets’ masked ball, they change clothes onstage, removing their modern duds and donning 16th-century doublet and hose. And, of course, the Capulets are similarly attired for their ball. But the costumes never come off. The rest of the play, until the very final moments, is conducted in period costume, with swords instead of guns. This was, I thought, a brilliant directorial choice. By this conceit, the extremity of the violence within which the story unfolds is made visceral for the audience from the get-go, but the feud is not allowed to usurp the love story entirely; indeed, the love story is elevated by the very costuming to something legendary, an archetype from the oversoul that everyday Romeos and Juliets access by finding themselves in love as (to them) no one has ever loved before. It’s a great idea, with great promise for the show.

Unfortunately, this very same scene dashes that self-same promise almost immediately. Because this Romeo, and this Juliet, have no chemistry. Not for an instant do I believe they are in transports of love – not in the ball, where it is most urgent that they enable us to suspend our disbelief about a literal love at first sight; not in the balcony scene; not in Juliet’s chambers on their wedding night; not in their common tomb at the close of the play. And without that, really, what’s left of the play?

Romeo, played by Gareth Potter, who did an excellent job last year as Edgar in King Lear, does a creditable job in his scenes with Mercutio and in his scenes with Friar Lawrence. He’s comfortable with the verse, and comfortable with his physical presence on the stage. But in his love scenes he kisses by the book, and notwithstanding Juliet’s line to that effect, we don’t want to see him following an instruction manual.

Nikki James’ Juliet, meanwhile, has more significant problems. Her voice is tremulous and unmodulated; I was sitting close to the front of the orchestra, and had no trouble hearing her, but by the same token I could hear her trying, too hard, to project to the back rows, and the consequence was a flattening of the emotions in her delivery. Physically, she was a very plausible adolescent girl – she played Dorothy in The Wiz in La Jolla, and I could very easily see her in that role – which is a rare and good thing in a Juliet, but on the other hand she did not physically hold the stage. A couple of times I saw her communicate profoundly with her eyes – for example, when she stabs herself to death, her physical reaction to the entry of the blade was terribly plausible – but the effect was so subtle I have a hard time believing it played more than ten rows in. I am reluctant to pass judgement on her as an actress, but I am comfortable saying that she should not have attempted this role on this stage until she, and her director, knew she could hold it. I’m rather apprehensive about her Cleopatra (in Shaw’s play, not Shakespeare’s) later in the season, and looking forward to seeing whether, by August, when that play opens, she has mastered the Festival stage.

A Romeo and Juliet without an incandescent love at its heart is a hollow vessel. But what a beautiful vessel it is! The set is phenomenal, the major piece of scenery – a bridge that transforms into a tunnel – the best such I’ve seen at on this stage since the production of Man of La Mancha a decade ago. The lighting is exciting, the actors are moved about the stage by a sure hand, and the scenes follow one another about as quickly as humanly possible, new scenes starting literally before the last has ended. All this lends the production an urgent pace that this play requires, and doesn’t always get. I could quibble about this or that – the director’s preference for mood music to underline foreboding is regrettable – but on the whole McAnuff has delivered a production that makes full use of what the Festival stage can do.

And the supporting cast has great strengths. Peter Donaldson breathes new life into Friar Lawrence, makes a man of him and almost makes us believe he’s not mad to join the young lovers without telling their parents of their union. Lucy Peacock, meanwhile, treads a perfect line on the Nurse, making us enjoy her presence even as we know she’s being a fool, making us believe in her good will even as we know she’s dooming her young mistress with her words. These two, normally played as foolish grownups who, not comprehending the power of the love between the two young people, are directly responsible, by their deceit, for bringing on the tragedy. Here, they seem fully to believe in that love, and the doom comes because of their understanding, not because of its lack.

The other two major supporting roles are Mercutio and Capulet, Juliet’s father. Evan Buliung, returning to Stratford after a number of years at Shaw, does a fine job in the former role, more sardonic than sarcastic, and less of a madcap than one usually sees (or than I like). He’s, frankly, not especially likeable, and not the scene-stealer that Mercutio usually is, which I thought a strange choice but an interesting one. In any event, he’s wholly plausible and very smooth in his delivery. John Vickery, new to the Festival, is appropriately funny and appropriately furious as Capulet; he fails to deliver only when confronting Juliet’s corpse.

In more minor roles, Steven Sutcliffe is rather disappointing as County Paris – he’s an extremely fine actor, but he seems to have taken the Nurse’s description of him as a “man of wax” rather too much to heart. Paul Dunn is fussily amusing as always as Peter, the illiterate servant to the Capulets. Wayne Best as Prince Escalus and Timothy Stickney as Tybalt give rather single-note performances, but these are single-note characters, and they certainly don’t lack presence. Sophia Walter, unfortunately, is inadequate as Juliet’s mother. She never convinces me that she is a mother at all, much less the mother of Juliet. Irene Poole, by contrast, is shockingly alive in the tiny role of Romeo’s mother, and Roy Lewis a figure of great dignity as Romeo’s father.

This would be an appropriate point for me to discuss the not-exactly-colorblind, yet nonetheless not-exactly-color-conscious casting. Romeo is white. Juliet is black. Yet, to look at their parents, both are the products of mixed-race unions – Romeo’s father is black, his mother white; for Juliet the situation is reversed. I can only assume that the director set out to do a colorblind R&J but felt that the colorblindness would not be clear unless he scrambled the parents. If Romeo had two white parents, I imagine, the director would worry that the feud would be . . . colored by the racial difference between the two lovers, and this would unbalance the play. Whatever the intent, I found the result rather distracting.

Romeo and Juliet fall in love in an instant, and their love consumes them like dry tinder. This Romeo and this Juliet have all summer together. They will have many chances before the run is over to ignite the passion that was missing on opening night. If they can achieve that, this will be a Romeo and Juliet to remember. As it is, it’s still very worth seeing.

I saw two other productions on Tuesday: The Trojan Women and Hamlet. Reviews hopefully to follow before the weekend is over.