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Tuesday, 28 May 2013

2013 Season Opens: An OP R&J @ SF

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Carroll; Designed by Douglas Paraschuk and Carolyn M. Smith
The story: Lad with romantic inclinations falls in love at first sight with young girl who returns his love; their long-feuding families force them to keep their love and subsequent marriage a secret, but much tragedy ensues as a result.

Much has been made of the fact that director Tim Carroll (Peter Pan, 2010) has chosen to employ "original practices" in his Stratford production of Romeo and Juliet - that is, trying to duplicate as best one can in 2013, the production values of 1597. The set, designed by Douglas Paraschuk, is the original Tanya Moseiwitzch stage with the bones of the Globe Theatre of London, UK, superimposed upon it. There are few props, the house-lights remain on (slightly dimmed), and there are few, if any, lighting effects to simulate an open-air theatre. The costumes (by Carolyn M. Smith) are Elizabethan, the incidental music (indeed, even the pre-show Fanfare) is performed on Elizabethan instruments, the play ends with an Elizabethan dance, and though Mr. Carroll does not go so far as to insist on men playing the women's roles, he has obviously asked his cast to perform with neat iambic pentameter - as much as they are able. (Their ability, or perhaps willingness, to do so is debatable but we will get to that.)

Mr. Carroll has also played around a bit with the text, chopping out the choral prologue about star-crossed lovers, in favour of members of the cast giving a brief, entertaining introduction to "OP" and theatre etiquette. This avoids the spectre of death which usually casts a pall on most versions of Romeo and Juliet from the start, and has the added effect  of setting up a more humourous production than one might be used to experiencing - since the fourth wall is missing entirely by opening this way, the actors can engage the audience whenever they choose, and they do, often.  As well, it is a nice little conceit to introduce the feuding factions of Capulets and Montagues; one is immersed in the play before one fully realizes what they are up to.

Jonathan Goad as
Mercutio, Kate Hennig
as Nurse, Mike
Nadajewski as Peter.
Photo by David Hou.
This must be what Mr. Carroll intended in employing OP, of course. It allows an extraordinarily quick pace for this tragedy, and allows the actors to do what they do best - act.  The best of the bunch is Kate Hennig as the wonderfully hearty, lusty yet tender Nurse, who not only delivers the Nurse's great rambles to perfection but also plays her silent moments beautifully. In fact, the best chemistry in the play is between Hennig's Nurse and Sara Topham's surprisingly coltish Juliet - their playful smacks, tickles, anxious glances, and tight hugs all illustrate a wonderfully close bond between a girl barely out of her teens and her nursemaid.

As Juliet Ms. Topham has the advantage of being a mature enough actor to understand the depth of her role, with the fortune to be youthful, and skill to be as girlish as the role requires (indeed, she must have studied a few tweens to get those mannerisms of immature impatience just right). As a result her performance is delightfully engaging in both the light and dark moments, although the sparks between Juliet and Romeo never catch fire.

This appears to be the fault, unfortunately, of Daniel Briere as Romeo. Mr. Briere has a firm enough grasp of the text, but one never quite believes he is in passionate love, nor capable of the incited rage it takes to kill Tybalt (Tyrone Savage). It will be interesting to return throughout the season to see if this was a case of opening night jitters, because there were momentary flashes of a Romeo of whom it would be nice to see.

Tom McCamus as
Friar Laurence. Photo
by David Hou.
Let us return to the iambic pentameter for a moment. It appears Mr. Carroll asked his cast to give it a whirl, but only Tom McCamus (Friar Laurence) and Jonathan Goad (Mercutio) really use it consistently and to any advantage. (Scott Wentworth as Capulet uses it for punctuated emphasis in a wonderfully-played scene as a furious father, but the lack of it elsewhere was noticeable to my ears, particularly from the younger members of the cast. Whether it would be noticeable at all to anyone not listening for it is doubtful.) The iambic gives a curious lilt to the lines, breaking them where they are written, not where they are punctuated. This allowed Mr. McCamus to more clearly illuminate some of Friar Laurence's text, but it removes the rather schizophrenic element from the Queen Mab speech of Mercutio, to the detriment of the scene. Both men give excellent performances, however, and help ground the production as a whole.

Whether Nehassaiu deGanne's choice or Mr. Carroll's, they have created a Lady Capulet who is a distant mother while her daughter is alive, but one who is very demonstrative when she believes her daughter is dead. Picture Juliet 's body discovered by Nurse and her parents on what would be her wedding day. In comes Paris, the groom, dancing a lively caper in front of his dead bride's bed, while Lady Capulet gently picks up and sways in time with her daughter's corpse in a ghoulish dance. Later, when Juliet has died for real, she giggles and falls to hold her daughter's hem. Both moments are gruesomely appealing  to an Elizabethan audience, who would appreciate the gallows humour.

As enamouring as it is to revisit Elizabethan England for a time, there are two quibbles:  the chiming clock in the background is apt to take one out of the play while trying to count the peals, whether it is to indicate the passing of time (a three-day play in three hours), or to simulate nearby church-bells of an open-air theatre; and the device of addressing the audience nearly disappears after the intermission, though there are opportunities to do so, which gave the production an unbalanced feel overall. Elizabethan audience members - particularly the 'groundlings' - would be expected to reply to the actors if addressed; it will be interesting to go to a student matinee to see if a less formal audience than opening night might do more than just chuckle appreciatively at the actors' efforts to engage them.

Overall Tim Carroll's production of Romeo and Juliet is an interesting experiment in time-travel, but that aside the production is solidly acted for the most part and deserving of appreciative audiences. It continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 19.

Cast of Romeo and Juliet. Forefront: Sara Topham as Juliet, Daniel Briere as Romeo.
Photo by David Hou.


  1. Joanne Wallace28 May 2013 at 12:21

    Nice, balanced review, Robyn. Looking forward to catching this show. Thanks for the good preparation!

  2. Thanks Joanne, I hope you enjoy it! RG


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