ROMEO JA JULIA [ROMEO AND JULIET]; directed by Antti Mikkola for the Seinäjoki City Theater, Seinäjoki, Finland. 25 November 2014.
Reviewed by Nely Keinänen
I like to think of myself as open-minded about Shakespeare, but at heart I suspect I’m a purist—nothing but the text, please. So I found Antti Mikkola’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, based on a translation by Lauri Sipari (2002), challenging. In a program note, Mikkola writes of trying to build a bridge between the old text and the current moment. In particular, he found himself thinking about the relationships of the adolescent characters to their parents:
“It felt important to expand the roles of the parents in this adaptation. Who are they, and what kind of relationship do they have with their children? What is this stage of hate on which the Montagues and Capulets are fighting? Perhaps it is a symbol of everything which separates parents and children: parents who are career-driven, indifferent, absent; who choose to be busy; who abandon their children emotionally.”
Mikkola’s adaptation thus includes a backstory for the parents in keeping with the setting, present day Seinäjoki in the middle of winter. Most of the time, I felt this worked rather well. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Montague (successful real estate developers, played by Esa Ahonen and Mari Pöytälaakso) leave for Spain, from which they occasionally, and mainly unsuccessfully, attempt to Skype their son, most poignantly right after he’s murdered Tybalt and is trembling alone at home. Earlier in the play, they complain to Romeo that he never answers his phone or texts, an irritation probably shared by more than a few parents of teenagers. Mrs. Capulet (Mia Vuorela) is also given a speech about how hard it is to be a mother, about how she would have wanted to pay more attention to Juliet, but found herself fixated on whether the child is eating fresh or processed food, or whether the family is being environmentally correct. The presence of the Nurse (Sari Jokelin) is explained by Mrs. Capulet’s inability to breastfeed, an anguish which seems still to affect the mother-daughter bond, accentuated by the contrast between Juliet’s very warm physical bond with the Nurse.
Attempts to explain the feud, in my opinion, worked less well. There was a nice moment, however, at the beginning of the second half, where Montague and Capulet (Heikki Vainionpää), dressed in black business suits, wrestled in a slow and stylized way, bathed in red light. Their reconciliation was thus even more powerful, as the men shook hands and Montague delicately entwined the hands of the dead children.
While I had some reservations about these additions, I wholeheartedly enjoyed the modern (and very poetic) text. The Finnish felt fluent and alive. For example, Juliet’s “Give me, give me! O tell me not of fear” (4.1.121) to Lorenzo when requesting the sleeping potion felt a bit like “Give it here!”
The set was simple, mainly an empty stage with a few large walls which could be rolled to different positions. These sometimes doubled as screens, often displaying selfies taken by Romeo and Juliet. Other projections were also very effective, especially during the scene where the Nurse and the Capulets find Juliet dead; rather than bringing the actors onstage to find the body, we see large head shots of the Nurse, Mother and Father, flashing on the screens, a chorus of lamentation. Romeo and Juliet’s fascination with selfies also took a morbid turn: after the children are found dead, one of the parents finds Romeo’s cell phone, on which he has filmed his suicide.
Moped cars made a dramatic visual, as well as thematic, point. While moped cars provide some measure of independence for youth who want to grow up all-too-quickly (the driving age for them is lower), the cars are also exceedingly “fragile and dangerous,” according to the director. Romeo climbed on the roof of his car to get closer to Juliet’s balcony, and the marriage was consummated in the back seat of Tybalt’s car, which had been destroyed in the offstage car crash which killed him. In another very effective moment, Capulet (a successful car dealer in this adaptation) finds Tybalt’s shoe in the back seat while rolling the car out to be sold “needing repair.”
Topi Kohonen’s Romeo beautifully portrayed the quicksilver ardor of youth, but I was even more impressed with his work after Tybalt’s death, conveying the sheer terror of a young boy who suddenly realizes what he has done. He calmed
down only when the Nurse gave him a teddy bear, a present from Juliet. The feeling of panic was accentuated by Liisu Aurasmaa’s amazing Benvolio, who threw up when Mercutio was killed and who later tried to hitchhike “away from here.” Anna Ackerman played Juliet as a spoiled little brat in the first half, but the characterization deepened in the second. I especially liked her performance in the tomb scene (here a hospital bed scene), where she gently ran her fingers down Romeo’s arm looking for his bottle of poison.
The adaptation touched on other modern themes as well, including Lorenzo (Jukka Puronlahti) supplying Mercutio (Jani Johansson) with medical marijuana. And there was a lovely bridge with “old” Shakespeare, in the form of an actor in Elizabethan dress who came on at the beginning, to listen to videos of adolescents talking about their lives, and again just after Juliet has drunk the poison, to wheel her bed downstage during the lamentations, disappearing when Romeo arrived to find the body. I liked this meta-theatrical reminder of the old English play, here so effectively translated both into Finnish and modern Finland.
Jukka Kontkanen – Photographer