Monday, 1 September 2008

A Visit to Fair Verona

A Review of the Stratford Festival Theatre's Romeo and Juliet, 08 Season

I must begin with the caveat that I am not an expert theatre reviewer. Indeed, I hardly know where to begin, how to extricate the performance from the script, how to discuss good acting or poor staging. Regardless, I'll give it a shot and you can be the judge of the review's worth.

I had been warned on entering the theatre that this was not one of the Festival's best performances, and I was forced to agree--though I did not dislike it as much as some did. The female lead, Nikki M. James, was originally criticised for being inaudible; by the performance I saw, well into the season, she had remedied this and was certainly a vocal force on the stage. However, her performance--and Gareth Potter's, her opposite--were overshadowed by the presences of some excellent secondary characters: Peter Donaldson as a wise and articulate Friar Laurence, Timothy D. Stickney as an explosively powerful Tybalt, and Evan Buliung as a melancholic and capering Mercutio. Their performances built up the reality which surrounded the lovers, created the living environment and deadly circumstances required to break into the bubble the eponymous pair's mutual infatuation created. The only fault in the strong secondary performances is that the long speeches of Romeo and Juliet, though excellently blocked, felt weak in comparison. This is a hazard of Shakespearean drama in general, since the rambling dialogues are now harder to follow orally than textually and are not necessary to an audience familiar with the plot, so I do not fault the actors for having to work with material that is conducive to audience wool-gathering.

The set was professional, as usual. The warm rosy cobbles of the thrust-stage and the movable bridge spanning the back enterances both created the Veronic atmosphere and provided ample footholes for Romeo to play over in his evasion of authorities and friends. The single-palette set was also condusive to transformation with minial props and filtered lighting, so that the friar's cell was easily constructed with a counter of medicine's and moonlight-through-windows, and the tomb real and evocative.

Perhaps my largest fault with the performance was the anachronisms of weapon and costum. The opening sequences were the regular Shakespeare-reworked fare of the Festival: the original language is maintained, but the costuming is modern and the swords are replaced with guns. However, as Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio dress for the Capulet ball, they switch into the garb of Renaissance Italy, and until the authorities break into the vault to discover the lovers' bodies this costume continues. In this last scene, the costumes revert back into modern clothing (with Romeo and Juliet dressed in cunningly ambiguous costumes). I was unsure what the significance of this was. It does remind me of De Quincey's criticism of Macbeth; in this case, the chaotic, trangressive action is defined by the Renaissance, and the assertion and reassertion of order is marked by surroundings with which the audience is comfortable. Regardless, this did seem an odd decision to make.

Finally, my reaction to the musical selection was mixed. The accompaniment to the exploration of Romeo and Juliet's love was overly saccharine for my taste--it was too light and intruded too much. The music set to scenes of foreboding, however, helped create the atmosphere rather than demand it, and the fight scenes' rhythms provided the pulse necessary to draw the audience into the combat. In particular, the use of exotic battledrums heightened and controlled the experience.

Overall, I must say that this was the least satisfying of the four performances I saw over the past few days, but the story of Romeo and Juliet itself, combined with the strong secondary characters and the excellent staging, made this enjoying nonetheless.

And perhaps it was most fitting that it the air was filled with misty rain when I exited the theatre, given the mood of the play.

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