Romeo and Juliet, dir. Scott Wentworth, Stratford Festival at Stratford, Ontario, Canada, 2017
Reviewed by Tracy O’Brien
Director Scott Wentworth writes in the playbill for the Stratford Festival’s Romeo and Juliet, “When we look at the hate speech around us today, we see our world hasn’t progressed far beyond the Capulets and the Montagues.” Perhaps in an effort to emphasize this message, Wentworth’s production is staged with Renaissance-era costumes and minimal props. The audience is immersed in the seventeenth century only to discover that things have not changed that much over the course of four hundred years. As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, the challenge that Romeo and Juliet poses is how to make it a unique experience for an audience that has, more likely than not, read or seen it several times. Wentworth’s production focuses on maximizing the visual and auditory richness of the play, rather than entertaining viewers with surprising interpretations of text or action. The Chorus, for example, is kept intact here, and there is little threat of the Prologue “spoiling” the play’s outcome for theatregoers since the play is so familiar. The Chorus compels the audience to question how the players will convince us – a cynical twenty-first-century audience – what circumstances could drive two teenagers to kill themselves over family ties and a miscommunication that is akin, today, to an unread instant message.
Wentworth’s Romeo (Antoine Yared) and Juliet (Sara Farb) are as youthful, innocent, and naïve as one might expect from adolescents ‘in love’. The balcony scene becomes comical, with the characters’ frustrations expressed through Juliet screaming at her nurse who is interrupting her fleeting time with Romeo, and he sighing and panting in desperation. As welcome as humour is when we know the tragedy that awaits, the silliness of their young love sometimes detracts from the message of the play; their ‘puppy love’ is out of balance with the amount of bloodshed and misery that ensues. The characters convey a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality, swinging violently between portrayals of youthful naïveté, and adult rage and despair; it is as if they cannot resolve how to behave. This approach may be taken as an effort to portray adolescent angst, confusion, and the conflict between the child’s desire for independence and the parents’ control. However, it leaves the audience a little confused as to how to feel about the performances.
This production works much better when comic elements are left to Juliet, The Nurse (Seana McKenna), and Mercutio (Evan Buliung). Farb is convincing as an exasperated teenager who has little or no autonomy in this misogynistic environment. Her affection for The Nurse is palpable, demonstrated through moments of tenderness that are juxtaposed with tantrums that erupt from Juliet when she is impatient or angry, and that trigger laughter from viewers. McKenna plays an empathetic Nurse who is simultaneously motherly towards Juliet, and brash towards other characters. She teases the young couple, recognizing their naïveté and taking advantage by bribing Romeo for money in return for information from Juliet, and then giving Juliet the same treatment, exchanging the results of her meeting with Romeo for a head and back massage. Buliung’s Mercutio is spectacular. He is physical, energetic, and uses the entire performance space to hold the audience’s attention completely, even, for example, when delivering Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech at over forty lines long. His physical humour and quick delivery convey a bond of true friendship between him and Romeo, and elicit much laughter from the audience. Buliung is so commanding throughout Act I that Mercutio’s death and subsequent absence are keenly felt throughout the theatre.
Mercutio’s death marks a profound shift in tone, away from lighthearted love to darkness and foreboding. It is in this sinister place that Yared’s acting skills shine. Wentworth’s Romeo seems to be striving for vivacity and vigor, with the focus on emphasizing his youth, innocence, and immaturity. He is almost always breathless, restless, and impatient. Yared’s enraged, grief-stricken Romeo, however, is far more convincing than his blissed-out in-love Romeo. His rage is visceral and the audience draws satisfaction from his brutal revenge on Tybalt (Zlatomir Moldovanski). Likewise, Randy Hughson’s Capulet offers a penetrating exploration of power and the human capacity for hatred. He scolds Tybalt at the ball and immerses the audience in the moment. Hughson’s Capulet intimidates. During this particular tirade, he wanders to the center of the theatre such that the actors are in a semi-circle behind him on-stage that joins the semi-circular audience seating in front of the stage, thus placing Capulet in the middle of the theatre’s occupants and drawing the viewers into the action and tension as on-looking guests at the ball. Hughson is riveting.
There is a slight impression of imbalance in tone that carries throughout the performance. The humour does not always work, occasionally being either ill timed or unnecessary, as reflected in the audience’s polite laughter. In contrast, the ominous scenes are so strong that the comparatively weak humour detracts from what would otherwise be a profoundly disturbing performance of an extremely well-known story during profoundly disturbing times. And it does seem that Wentworth wants exactly to comment on these disturbing times, as Prince Escalus (Juan Chioran) chides the young lovers’ parents: “Capulet, Montague, / See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love”, and Capulet and Montague (Jim Codrington) respond by joining hands in the crypt, over their children’s corpses. It is a disquieting scene, devoid of humour, and a candid representation of our political and social climate.
Romeo and Juliet continues until October 21, 2017. For more information, see https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/
The view expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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