Julia & Romeo; directed by Jussi Nikkilä for the Finnish National Theater in Helsinki, Finland. Adaptation by Anna Viitala based on a translation by Marja-Leena Mikkola. 4 Oct 2018
Reviewed by Nely Keinänen (University of Helsinki)
In 2016, the director Jussi Nikkilä did an excellent production of Richard III on one of the smaller stages at the Finnish National Theater, so expectations were high when it was reported that he would turn next to Julia & Romeo, this time on the main stage. And these expectations were more than fulfilled: more than any other production I’ve seen, this one captures the awkwardness of young love, where desire competes with doubt, each tremulous move forward answered by a quick move back.
In what was likely at least partially a directorial decision judging from the reversed order of the names in the title, it is Satu Tuuli Karhu’s Juliet who most clearly portrays the youthful combination of eagerness and fear. The play’s opening sets the tone: a door opens at the very far back of the stage, revealing Juliet bathed in light. Katri Rentto’s minimalist set creates a sense of space large enough for a teenager to feel awkward in, with only a small square platform towards the front, framed with a simple four-posted structure, to create an intimate space for acting. As Juliet slowly walks downstage, we can see her confidence ebb and flow, even as she pushes steadily ahead. Olli Riipinen’s Romeo is an ardent young poet, scribbling his deepest emotions into a small notebook, with almost any feeling–positive or negative–sending him into angst-driven spasms (brilliantly captured with his trembling right hand). In a hilarious yet also moving sequence, as they are about to consummate their marriage, Juliet drinks courage from a bottle, then after an awkward pause, takes off her boots. Romeo, tremulously next to her on the couch, determines that his boots should come off too. He thinks about this for a moment. Puts his hands on his shoelaces, manages to untie them. Takes off one boot, then the other. Pauses again, tucks the shoelaces inside the boots, lines the shoes up together neatly (the teenage audience around us are in stitches by this point). Juliet takes another swig, turns to her new husband, both of them trembling and excited and overwhelmed.
Moments like these were enhanced by the language—Marja-Leena Mikkola’s poetic translation, beautifully delivered by the actors, was supplemented in places by thoroughly modern teenage Finnish, including short phrases and fillers that kids say to each, variations on “oh” and “wow.” One in particular was repeated several times: Romeo and Juliet looking at each other awkwardly, saying “hi,” and then neither knowing quite what to say next. In the first instance they were standing close together, wanting but not yet able to rush into each other’s arms. Towards the end of the play there was an especially poignant repetition, where each stood on his/her respective balcony and, looking at each other across the expanse of the stage, managed their “hi” in a very small, awkward, defeated, yet hopeful voice (Juliet’s balcony was the nearest box on the first circle, decked with flowers in the freshest bloom, while Romeo had the box opposite, decked with dead and dying flowers, with a garish green neon “Mantua” sign showing the depths of his banishment). Another effective juxtaposition of modern language was in the death scene: when Juliet discovers that Romeo is dead, she discards the empty bottle of poison, rummages in his pockets for his knife, and then taking aim says very quietly, “I better do it fast.” In a fitting parallel to the opening, Romeo and Juliet then rise from the dead and make their way back to the door of light from which Juliet had first emerged, the theater lighting creating a dark night with millions of stars including on the roof of the auditorium. A moment like this could easily turn corny, but it didn’t.
In this production, the Romeo and Juliet story is very effectively paralleled by a love story between Mercutio (Miro Lopperi) and Tybalt (Jarno Hyökyvaara), both very engaging young actors (all four of the young leads were on loan to the FNT from the Helsinki Theater Academy). Mercutio turns the Queen Mab speech into a kind of seductive dance, ending with him almost clasping Tybalt’s finger. Tybalt, surprised but intrigued, tentatively clasps back. Forced apart by the arrival of Benvolio and Romeo, they nevertheless keep circling back to each other, repelled and attracted in equal measure. This of course adds enormous pathos to Tybalt’s slaying of Mercutio, which feels accidental when the sheath which has been covering his sword unexpectedly comes off. When Romeo kills Tybalt, Tybalt falls next to Mercutio still lying on the ground. Foreshadowing the ending where Romeo and Juliet rise, these two do as well, becoming a pair haunting the second half of the play. For example, when Juliet is left alone in her chamber on the night before her wedding to Paris, during the speech where she is imaging Tybalt’s mangled body in the vault, he comes to comfort her, unseen but perhaps not unfelt. At the same time, Mercutio sits next to Romeo on the Mantua balcony, his face turned away, unable or unwilling to look upon his beloved.
The elder generation was often used to inject a note of comedy into the tragic proceedings, and for the most part these moments worked very well. Juha Varis’ Capulet was starting to feel his age, with an occasional leg cramp or stumble, which he tried to compensate for by constantly caressing his wife. One of the most hilarious moments came at the beginning, when Capulet and Montague entered wielding comically huge swords, too heavy for them to actually lift. They stopped at the edge of a walkway built across the fourth row, used in many instances to bring the action even closer to the audience, but here they realized there simply wasn’t space for them to fight. Sitting a few rows back, I was rather pleased when they backed away. But all was not laughs. Faced with Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris, Capulet’s tone changed completely and his furious exit left her cowering. Lady Capulet was removed from her daughter both emotionally and visually, since in contrast to the youth, who were in modern dress, the elder generation was costumed in late nineteenth century clothing, making it seem that the feud had been going on for generations. For this reason, I was disappointed that Nikkilä cut the reconciliation between Montague and Capulet at the end of the play, as this made the ending seem even bleaker than usual, with no sense that any good will come from their children’s deaths.
Kristo Salminen’s Father Laurence was a kind of overgrown hippie, taking care of his bird William along with Brother John, who was present in these scenes throughout. The friar’s cell, a wheeled cart with bright pink curtains, also added a touch of comedy. When two guards search through Verona looking for Romeo, he hides on a stool behind the short curtains, looking like someone hiding in a toilet stall. Salminen has an incredible vocal range, and the low notes he hit when convincing Romeo not to commit suicide seemed to shake not only Romeo but the whole theater.
As seems to be happening more and more in theater these days, this production also included a great deal of background music, performed by Mila Laine (keyboards, cello, voice) and Aleksi Kaufmann (guitar, cello, voice). The music added depth and emotion to the play, but every now and again I found myself thinking that Shakespeare’s verse is music enough, and from my seat in the sixth row, I sometimes found it difficult to hear the words over the music.
Some months back I saw a somewhat lackluster Romeo and Juliet and thought that maybe now approaching late-middle age I was outgrowing the play. The FNT production changed my mind. I already have tickets to see it again.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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