Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: (Stratford) Romeo and Juliet

Daniel Brière, Sarah Topham (photo credit: Don Dixon)

I Ne’er Saw True Beauty Till This Night
Stratford’s new Romeo and Juliet is a refreshing approach to a well-worn classic
by Dave Ross (@dmjross) and Stuart Munro (@StuartMunroTO)

Stratford’s 61st season got off to a stellar start last night with the festival’s new production of Romeo and Juliet. Helmed by Globe director, Tim Carroll, this version of Shakespeare’s classic attempts to use “original practices,” bringing the performing and viewing experience as closely as possible back to the 1590s when the play was first performed.

Stuart Munro: This approach was apparent as soon as you entered the Festival Theatre – the stage was completely bare, and for the first time in six years, the theatre’s original design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch stood centre stage.

Dave Ross: I agree – my first show ever at the Stratford Festival was with this stage, but the handful of shows I’ve seen since have not used it and instead having large, elaborate designs. This isn’t to say that these larger designs don’t have their place, but it is refreshing to see this stage restored. It brought incredible focus to the performers and the text. During the first act of the play I made a mental note that none of the performers were blowing me away, but I soon came to realize that I was seeing an incredibly talented, cohesive cast, where every performance, from the supernumeraries to the leads, was, in a word, excellent. Without technical whizbangery to conceal any weak performances, they had to be. 

SM: I couldn’t agree more. In all the Shakespeare I’ve seen at the festival in the last few years, I don’t think I’ve ever understood a play so well as this one (which I’m only partially familiar with). The full depth of Carroll’s original practices concept is still a bit confusing to me, but the end result seems to be a focus on and clarity of text that surpasses anything I’ve experienced before. The simplicity of the staging and the attention to the text was incredibly refreshing – it allowed the natural arc of the play to really come forward. Someone unfamiliar with Romeo and Juliet would be forgiven for thinking the first act was a comedy, but (spoilers!) as soon as the young couple meets – and especially after the murders of Mercutio and Tybalt – there is this inexorable push towards the tragedy of the play, and the second half kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end.

DR: That sense of impending doom is so well executed. Carroll uses a gong to mark the passing of time, which in the first part seemed a touch repetitive. But its role in that inexorable drive becomes so important in the second. I am one of those who is also unfamiliar with the play – despite taking numerous Shakespeare courses, Romeo and Juliet is that one play that has slipped my awareness – and I felt like the beginning was somewhat unimportant. But, as you point out, after the murders of Mercutio and Tybalt, the mood changed, and I was enrapt for the rest of play. That drive towards tragedy culminates with one of the most gut-wrenching climaxes one could imagine. After Juliet takes her life, the entire Festival Theatre was silent – a testament to the performances and direction.

SM: My only issue had to do with the older ages of actors Daniel Briere and Sara Topham, Romeo and Juliet respectively. Sara Topham had a wonderful youthful exuberance, though the timbre of her voice gave away her actual age, and Briere’s Romeo was a little casual about his falling in love. By the second half, however, I just didn’t care anymore. Briere’s Romeo became dashing, handsome, and lovestruck, while the desperation of Topham’s Juliet in the second half was absolutely palpable. Both actors really inhabited the essence of their characters. Likewise, Mike Nadajewski as Peter, Kate Hennig as the nurse, and Tom McCamus as Friar Lawrence all gave memorable performances.

DR: This production of Romeo and Juliet is, as much as can be done in our age, as close to experiencing the play as it would have been (short of going to the Globe and seeing an original practices performance there). Carroll and his design team went to great effort to ensure that the text and performances are what shine through, and the overall experience is as accurate as it can be. From researching Elizabethan customs surrounding who bowed to whom and when, to a minimalist design that suggests the Globe, and a lighting design that mimics the shifting afternoon sun one would experience, all of these efforts provide the perfect platform upon which to mount an incredibly powerful production. The festival has many excellent shows on tap this summer, but their choice to open with Romeo and Juliet was a sound one – this is truly a crown jewel for the festival.

Stratford’s Romeo and Juliet runs to October 19 at the Festival Theatre

1 comment:

  1. It's terrible. TERRIBLE. Worst Romeo ever. Gangling, mugging, shouting, comical, physically graceless, unhandsome and boring. People laughed during his suicide. Cumbersome, irritating costumes. Trying to replicate the open-air Globe inside was ridiculous: not a trace of intimacy, tragedy or passion. False, 'traditional' verse-speaking ruins the proper breath and meaning of the lines. Falstaffian comedy all the way to the end.


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