The following productions were reviewed on Friday, May 31, 2013, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM ROMEO AND JULIET and MEASURE FOR MEASURE both at the Stratford Festival until the fall.
1) Good Friday morning. It’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and Passionate Playgoer.
Hi Lynn. Since The Stratford Festival opened on Monday can I assume you are going to review plays from the Festival?
Right you are Phil. It was an auspicious opening to the 61st season, with pomp and ceremony and begun by a kilt-clad, troupe of drum-beating, bag-pipe playing enthusiastic fellows.
It’s the inaugural season of incoming Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino. I see a theme in this opening week of moving forward into the future but with a strong bond to tradition.
In this week I saw: Romeo and Juliet, Fiddler on the Roof, Measure for Measure, The Who’s Tommy, tonight it’s Mary Stuart and tomorrow it’s The Three Musketeers and Blithe Spirit. This being a festival that focuses on Shakespeare, today I’m going to cover Romeo and Juliet and Measure for Measure.
2) Let’s start with those star cross’d lovers, Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a play about love, feuding, death and reconciliation.
Romeo and Juliet are teenagers whose families have been feuding for so long that no one remembers the reason. They just hate each other and when anyone from either family meets in the street by accident, it usually results in a fight.
But Romeo crashes a party at Juliet’s house and is completely smitten when he sees her and so is she when she sees him. They secretly marry. Her parents promise her to someone else and it ends really, really badly.
3) I understand that the production is unusual because it tries to replicate a performance in Shakespeare’s day?
This is where tradition comes in. The production’s director Tim Carroll and his design team led by set designer Douglas Paraschuk, pay homage to the original Stratford Festival stage design by Tanya Moiseiwitsch; with its balcony, side staircases, and thrust stage.
It is also a tip of the hat to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, England, with its three spikes at the top, canopy over the stage and the suggestion of tiers almost around its round circumference. The theatre is uncovered for the most part. Carroll was an associate director at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from 1999 to 2005.
They often used what is called “original practices” in which the lighting was natural during the day and minimal at night. A group of musicians played traditional music on traditional instruments before the show to get us in the mood. The actors played directly to the audience in many cases. They ended every performance with a rousing dance. Characters begin each performance with the rules, done in Elizabethan ‘speak’, about turning off cell phones and not taking pictures etc.
And Carroll has brought those practices to Stratford. The house lights are on in the audience as well as on stage during the show.
Musicians played in the lobby beforehand and did the fanfare (lute, drum, recorder, violin) to announce the beginning of the performance. That was interesting. No rousing brass fanfare, but this quiet, lilting version. The same musicians stood on the stage balcony playing traditional music until the show started.
Characters from the house of Capulet tell us to turn off cell phones etc. but with a sensibility of 1595. Characters from the house of Montague come out to tell the same thing; a shouting match begins, and so does the play. Slick that.
Now I know we don’t live in Shakespeare’s time, but this is an interesting exercise. I have also seen Globe productions when all the women’s parts are played by men. It engages the audience; introduces a different approach. I’m up for that.
What Carroll has envisioned for his production of Romeo and Juliet has more to do with an adherence to the play as text and not as much attention about the play as performance, or to get performances out of actors who need a strong hand.
I must confess I’ve seen a few of Carroll’s productions at the Globe and they generally lack a strong idea; a grip on actually directing actors to realize the play. They seemed unexplored and dull. Opportunities missed. These problems are so evident here.
4) How so?
We have a Romeo in Daniel Briere who is not up to the task. It’s so easy to slash and burn him for his inadequacy but that’s unfair and cruel. His biography indicates only one Shakespeare role and that was a minor one, in an outdoor production. How can Tim Carroll then cast him in one of the most celebrated lead roles on one of the greatest stages? How can you do that to this young man with so little experience?
As Juliet we have Sara Topham, who is accomplished in Shakespeare. She is sprightly and wide-eyed, trying to assume the youthfulness of Juliet, but forgive me Topham might be better suited to play Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother.
Tim Carroll direction plays for laughs, using the audience a lot, but doesn’t dig deep enough to realize the emotional depth of the play. So a character will go up to an audience member to ask if he/she can read a list of names. The audience member leans forward to do it, but the character rips the list out of her hand to say that he will find someone more intelligent. Very funny.
But at another time Tybalt for example is standing watching a fight break out with the Montagues and one of the Montagues tries to break it up. Decent. But then Tybalt rushes into the fray as if he hadn’t seen this effort to break up the fight; as if he assumes they are all ganging up on his friends. Makes no sense. Not thought out enough.
A more serious moment lost occurs when Romeo rushes to Juliet’s tomb to find her dead (he thinks) laid out, arms folded across her chest. He laments, moves downstage with his back to her and drinks his poison. Unbeknownst to him is that Juliet is regaining consciousness from her drugged sleep. Her arm slowly floats out from her chest and is now extended. When Romeo turns to her and sees the arm he stops, looks at it and then carefully folds it back to the original position. No thought that perhaps she is alive. No thought that he has miscalculated. No seriousness developed. And then he continues his pining and then lays out beside her. Another opportunity lost to realize the huge emotion of the play.
The acting is very uneven but there are a few saving graces.
5) What were they?
As the Nurse, Kate Hennig is brash, lusty, overwhelming in her love for Juliet. As Friar Laurence, Tom McCamus has a beautiful ease with the language and brings out all the common sense and compassion in the part.
As Tybalt, Tyrone Savage is a young actor who goes from strength to strength—hot headed as Tybalt, courtly and edgy. This is a Romeo in the making, if not ready now.
I am grateful to Gabrielle Jones as Lady Montague for one of the few true emotional moments in the play. She pleads for her son not to be banished. She falls on her knees, reaches out for the Duke’s hand and cries out for compassion. It’s startling, honest and true. But the overall experience is disappointing.
6) And Measure for Measure. Tell us about that.
We are in Vienna. Vienna is corrupt. The Duke of Vienna knows it and hopes to sort things out by leaving town and making his very straight-laced deputy, Angelo, the person in charge. Unbeknownst to everybody, the Duke disguises himself as a monk to see what kind of ruler Angelo is.
Angelo takes his responsibilities seriously. He resurrects an arcane law that says that fornication resulting in pregnancy is a crime, punishable by death of the man. The first test case is Claudio who got his fiancée pregnant. According to the law he’s got to die. But his sister Isabella is sent to plead his case to Angelo. Isabella is about to become a nun and enter a convent.
She comes to Angelo in her novice’s habit and he takes one look at her and is smitten. He says he will spare her brother if she will sleep with him. So here is one of the wonderful moral dilemma of this play. It’s about the corrupting affects of power; lust; sex; entitlement. Isabella is not only compromised by Angelo, there are others as well.
7) Are Original Practices used for this production as well?
No. It’s a traditional production, and it’s a stunner. Director Martha Henry has set this in the 1940s as a kind of film nourish sensibility. The design by John Pennoyer is elegant and rich. Steven Hawkins’ lighting is moody and evocative of a less than savoury world.
In the first scene the Duke has come home after carousing and we realize that he is part of that unsavoury world. Henry is a master of using the Tom Patterson Theatre to its fullest. The whole world of that Duke and his inner circle is vivid, and wonderfully unsettling. Interesting that they are on call 24/7. The Duke has a firm grip on his staff, but not on his city.
Henry establishes each relationship in a way that we are never in doubt as to who or what these people think…and they are never superficial; never black and white. Isabella pleading her case to Angelo is gripping and full of conviction; as is his counter arguments.
As Angelo, Tom Rooney is superb. Totally controlled, uptight, conflicted but ruthless. He is equally matched by Carmen Grant as Isabella. Her performance is compelling, full of passion, and you are certain that this is life and death to her. You watch this sitting forward, breathless.
As the Duke Geraint Wyn Davies is courtly, imperiously confident and dangerous. As Lucio, Stephen Ouimette embodies every shyster, lowlife petty thief in this masterful performance. There are several parts cast by graduates of the Birmingham Conservatory, the training arm of the Stratford Festival. They are all wonderful. Martha Henry is the Director of the Conservatory and responsible for the training. The work is exemplary.
And while I loved the production I do have a concern.
8) What’s your concern?
There are several decisions by the Duke that suggests that this does not end well. One of them is that the Duke tells Isabella that he will marry her.
He says, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine.”
With this last he grabs her arm and draws her to him. He’s smiling. She’s not. We know it will not go well for Isabella. Isabella is stunned. That’s fine. We get the sense of her turmoil.
But then Henry ends play with the Duke in a spotlight downstage, looking up to Lucio in his spotlight. Isabella, on the other side of the stage, crosses herself and sinks to her knees where she remains in shadow.
I find that grouping mystifying. I don’t know what Henry is trying to suggest—that the Duke and Lucio are corrupt and nothing will change and that they are central and Isabella is discarded? Possible but unsatisfying.
But the real gut-twister, is that Isabella will now be in the same situation with the Duke as she was with Angelo. She will not get her wish to be a nun and no moment really was made of this. I’m open to various interpretations as long as it makes sense.
I’ve seen productions in which Isabella is alone on stage and turns to the audience and looks out fearful, and reacts in a way suggesting her peaceful life is over. One of the greatest Isabella’s I’ve seen is Martha Henry’s. I realize direction is all about interpretation but this staging confuses me. I have been thinking about that since I saw it. Always a good thing. I just wish I understood the reasoning. Up till then, the production is terrific.
Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at www.slotkinletter.com
Romeo and Juliet plays at the Festival Theatre until October 19.
Measure for Measure plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 21.