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Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Where is the Love? Romeo and Juliet Opens at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Reviewed May 27, 2008
Robyn Godfrey for the Stratford Gazette

Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Featuring Gareth Potter, Nikki M. James, Evan Buliung, Peter Donaldson and Lucy Peacock

The Story: Girl meets boy, parents disapprove, and miscommunication leads to bloodshed and teen suicide.

The names of Romeo and Juliet are so ingrained in our culture that reviewing the story hardly seems necessary. Naturally Shakespeare’s tale has more depth than that, and in Des McAnuff’s inaugural production as Artistic Director, the traditional love tragedy takes an unusual back seat to the paths of violence in the characters' world.

The production opens with onstage Vespas, and Armani-clad fellows in dark shades that evoke the Mafia, especially when several pistols are shot off in quick succession (once horrifyingly aimed at a baby carriage). Happily this Hollywood style does not persist for very long, although the escalation of fighting continues to be an emphasized theme.

For example, during the fantastic Queen Mab speech, given voice in this production by Evan Buliung, Mercutio becomes wilder and wilder the longer it goes on until he is utterly out of control. Buliung whips himself and the audience into a frenzy until he is brought solidly back to earth – it is a brilliant way of subtly stressing the way aggression can rapidly intensify into violence, or in Mercutio’s case – self-destruction.

The characters in this production are all tougher than usually imagined. Peter Donaldson’s Friar Laurence is a warrior monk, one who has little patience, who shouts a lot and even shoves Romeo around; he almost bullies Romeo into escaping Verona, but he of all the performers exudes the most grief when tragedy overtakes his good intentions.

Lucy Peacock’s Nurse is also able to stand up to Lord and Lady Capulet for a moment longer than often portrayed, but has one giggling from beginning to end of her prattling speeches. Her extra-puffy sleeves and ribbon-bedecked cape make her larger-than life, and there is an obvious rapport between her and Nikki M. James as Juliet which shines through the layers.

As Juliet, Nikki M. James looks and sounds the part of a thirteen-year-old – not whiny, but child-like. While this is good for playing a young girl, it is not great for an actor in an 1800-seat theatre, and it is only during her scene of grief over Romeo’s banishment that her voice grows strong enough to fill the space. If she can capture that voice and hold it for the rest of the play, she will be a much stronger Juliet.

Her Romeo is played by Gareth Potter, who comes on very enthusiastically, as any horny teenager might. However, while there is passion in his delivery, there is little passion between him and Ms. James. The blocking gives them no time to develop it - the enormous (and somewhat noisy) bridge/balcony hinders them, and as they awaken after their only night together, the light barely comes up before Romeo hops out of bed to make his escape. As a result, the last death scene does not feel tragic at all.

This is puzzling, because for the most part, there are lots of vulgar jokes, gestures and innuendoes slung around this production – literally. Why the emphasis is on the lewd and not the love is not clear.

There are other strengths – Gordon S. Miller brings the oft-overlooked Benvolio to life; Sophia Walker and Stephen Sutcliffe deliver the text beautifully. The comedy is wonderful and it was clever to put the prologue and epilogue in the sturdy voice of Peter Donaldson. The modern-to-Renaissance costumes of Paul Tazewell were in luscious hues of the traditional blues and reds, and brava to the wardrobe attendants for those lightening quick-changes.

However the weaknesses ultimately undo this production – the red set and background music is distracting, and the actors need to gel and find the love. Taking bows to an overly loud version of The Cure’s Just Like Heaven may seem appropriate given the lyrics, but was just another jarring example of something amiss.

Romeo and Juliet continues in repertory until November 8 at the Festival Theatre; give it a few weeks to find its heart. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008


I'm a freelance reviewer for the Stratford Gazette, in Stratford, Ontario. It's a weekly paper, so reviews will be posted as they are published in the paper or on their website. I'll also provide links to other national reviews along the side, for those who don't agree with me and who want to know what other people have said. (My apologies if the links stop working - some papers like you to pay for the priviledge of reading them and I'm not willing to circumvent that.)

I like to say that I'm a reviewer, not a critic; potAto, potAHto, I know. Just keep in mind that any review is just one person's opinion, of one particular performance, and your opinion is just as valid as mine, and mine is just as valid as yours.

Here's to a great season of theatre!

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