11 May 2008

Romeo and Juliet

So I saw a matinée production of this yesterday (that would be Saturday, 10 May) at Stratford (which is the one in Ontario, not the one in Merrie England); this is a new artistic director's first season there, and this was a pre-season production. (Which I rather prefer; the cast isn't bored yet, and while there may be the occasional glitch there is also some considerable intensity which I suppose to be involved in avoiding the glitches, the production not having burned its ways by much repetition down from the brain into the spine of all involved.)

The production started in modern dress, complete with Vespa-style scooters and switchblades and snuby revolvers for rapiers. (The prince's machine pistol gets fired in the air to restore order.) It went from there to Elizabethan (Romeo and friends changing for the party on stage, with much pulling on of high boots), and from there to High Tudor (most of the interaction of Romeo and Juliet, and of Juliet with her parents); it then went back through Elizabethan for the scenes around the crypt, and ended in modern dress. This extended to using electric flashlights in the modern dress and torches with open flames (!!) in the Elizabethan and Tudor sections. The program asserts that this was undertaken to emphasize the timeless nature of the story. Since I read the program when I got home, I was wondering if love wore old-fashioned clothes and authority modern dress for awhile.

The split between the comedy, before the death of Mercutio, and the tragedy after, was in some sense completely ignored before it happened; I have seen other productions of the play that have the looming tragedy inform the first half, and darken the actor's moods and meanings. This one did not, to I think great effect; the comedy was done as comedy entire, and it made the contrast sharper.

The set was a marvel of simplicity in some respects—one set, two levels&mdashwhile most clever in others. A large illuminated globe that raised and lowered from the ceiling stood for sun and moon (blue, in unfortunate times); the raised portion of the set slid forward and backward to be Friar Lawrence's cell and the crypt; the trapdoor had been replaced by a (presumed) scissor lift, so that various bits of furniture (once with Juliet sitting on it) would rise into the middle stage. (When Capulet orders the fire put out, it is too warm? there was a fire pit in the middle of the stage, being danced around, and just that thing was done.) The first attempt at the scissor lift missed, slightly, bowing the whole stage up quite visibly. Not an actor batted an eyelash, and the crew below soon managed to realign matters.

All the roles were played by people who at least appeared quite appropriate in age; this extended out to tone and bearing, in a way that conveyed a living history of social interactions, rather than a sense of being a play. The Prince in particular conveyed a fundamental authority and gravitas such that one cannot doubt that, indeed, he does entirely over-awe Montague and Capulet.

Mercutio's crude humour came across as plenty crude, but an entirely amiable value of crude; Romeo managed to come across as someone very believably not regularly so insufferably soppy, so you could see why his friends cared for him. One could also feel that the Capulets were making a horrible mistake, because, when he's not being overwrought, this is an entirely formidable young man. His speech to the apothecary about the utility of the law, in particular, was delivered in suddenly entirely sane calm and considered tones to what I felt was great effect. I also found it interesting that the fight choreography arranged matters so that while most fights, Mercutio and Tybalt in particular, were matters of style and presentation, Romeo fought with a specific determination to kill the other fellow and no concerns of style whatsoever. (The fellow playing Tybalt did an excellent job of conveying by expression and body language that, hey, wait, this was not what he was expecting, at all, what, I'm losing?)

All the Capulets are a bit mad, or at least prone to great extremes of feeling; Juliet's frequently near-hysterical delivery worked really well. (Juliet was Nikki M. James, someone in her first season at Stratford. She did a most excellent job.) The unrelieved awfulness of Juliet's circumstances was presented very clearly; if she is very highly wrought, there is much wreaking upon her, and she is managing, somehow, to make the effort of thought and of hope throughout all this, right up until she is presented with a dead Romeo, whereupon she does keep thinking.

So far as I can tell, they did the whole thing, too, without much emendation, down to the musicians in the bedroom round Juliet's corpse, that example of the robust jollity of the Elizabethan theatre-goer.

The Avon river (of course they called it the Avon) by the Stratford Festival's several theatres is slow; so slow that the half hour of lunch before hand saw two yellow water lily flowers, clearly loose from all roots and moorings, move maybe five meters in a direction that might have been downstream, or might have been the laborious eddy of some willow roots. Walking back from dinner after the play provided swimming ducks with fifteen meter V wakes behind them, round ripples round the plunged heads of swans, and the dissolution of a wedding back over one of the arched bridges to an island in the river.

A good play, and a good day, and may all who read this find the same.

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