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romeo and juliet

Romeo And Juliet At The Stratford Festival

There are a number of refreshing aspects to Sam White’s production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, now playing to shamefully small houses on the Stratford Festival’s main stage.

For starters, she has stripped the legendary “Tanya stage” almost to its essence, providing an opportunity to more fully appreciate its singular achievement; it is, after all, the original thrust stage, crafted to Tyrone Guthrie’s specifications. There are judicious bits of decoration and furniture added now and again, notably for the party scene at the Capulet’s, but for the most part, White has chosen to work on a bare stage.

She has also chosen to costume this Romeo and Juliet in more or less “traditional” quasi-Elizabethan fashion – tights for the men and attractive Empire-style dresses for the women – a decision that will no doubt please those tired of often arbitrary changes of time and place

Beyond that, White has given Romeo and Juliet a workmanlike, paint-by-the-numbers rendition that betrays no strong sense of a directorial vision. She has an instinctive understanding of how to stage Shakespeare on the Festival’s thrust, something that is not as easy as it might seem, and a skill which eluded the more experienced Kimberley Rampersad in last season’s King Lear.

However, the production moves almost languidly from scene to scene, set piece to set piece, punctuated by odd choices, some of them arresting, that don’t seem to add up to a great deal.

The famous “two households” prologue is here, but sung in an oddly tuneless fashion by a woman in a starburst headdress. Shades of Ravi Jain’s Mahabharata! Those who are unfamiliar with the text will, I think, find it hard to understand and will be left wondering what the point was.

A pair of drummers (Jasmine Jones-Ball and Graham Hargrove) appear throughout on the periphery of the action adding ominous grace notes to the proceedings. It’s not Elizabethan, but what is it exactly? And why?

The apothecary who sells Romeo the fatal dram of poison reveals himself momentarily as the dead Mercutio. It’s an effective touch but it made me wonder if Romeo recognized him. Or was this supposed to be Romeo’s hallucination?

What we are left with is the text of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which of course is luminous, at least when the spotty diction of the cast allows it to be understood. The days when you could come to a Shakespeare play at the Stratford Festival assured that you would be able to understand every word spoken in a conversational style that suggested the play was written last week appear to be over.

Then there are the performances, which ran the gamut from excellent, to serviceable, to the just plain mediocre. Some Stratford pros seem to be recycling time-worn tricks of the trade, which made me wonder how strong a hand White had on the directorial tiller.

I believe it was artistic director Antoni Cimolino who observed that the trouble with Romeo is that the part is given to actors too young to have achieved the emotional maturity to fully understand the role. So Jonathan Mason, this season’s Romeo, who is in the Birmingham Conservatory, the Stratford Festival’s finishing school for classical actors, must be placed firmly in the “promising young actor” category. He looks the part and has a boyish brio, but he skates on the surface of the role much of the time.

Vanessa Sears as Juliet fares better. She has the God-given gift of almost ethereal beauty, which doesn’t hurt. She does a nice job of bringing out Juliet’s girlishness, reminding us of just how young these star-crossed lovers are. And for the most part, she handles the verse and its underlying passions well.

Andrew Iles gets better every season it seems. But White has elicited from him a Mercutio who is more effects than effective. I never sensed the person beneath the bravado.

Far more successful is Jessica B. Hill as Lady Capulet. She navigates the contradictions between motherly love and vicious hatred for her enemies with aplomb. Scott Wentworth, who directed the Festival’s last mounting of Romeo and Juliet in 2017, does a nice job with Friar Laurence.

For the rest, not much stood out other than a nice dance piece for the Capulet’s party from choreographer Adrienne Gould.

White, artistic director of Shakespeare In Detroit, directed a stunning production of Wedding Band last season, so expectations for her first foray into Shakespeare here at Stratford were high. Her Romeo and Juliet then is a bit of a disappointment.

This Romeo and Juliet will no doubt work well enough for the inevitable school groups bused in to see their first Shakespeare. However, I suspect that it will leave those who are seeing their third, fourth, or even tenth Romeo and Juliet feeling they could very well have taken a pass.

Romeo and Juliet continues at the Festival Theatre through October 26, 2024. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Stratford Festival website.

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