As You Like It at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Randy Hughson as Corin and Ben Carlson as Touchstone

Next year the Stratford Shakespeare Festival will be putting on Twelfth Night, which is practically our favorite Shakespeare play. But we’re going to skip it. Till further notice, we’re not paying to see Shakespeare plays directed by Des McAnuff. There will be other shows at Stratford in 2011.

Mr. McAnuff’s As You Like It has a lot in common with his Romeo and Juliet in 2008 (see this post) and his Macbeth in 2009 (see this post): actors who don’t seem to understand their lines, speeches that can’t be heard, a jarringly uneven tone, confusing visual images, and “modern” settings that don’t work. Like most mediocre Shakespeare productions, it has all too many “dead zones” – long minutes in which the actors seem merely to be reciting, rather than acting, their lines, causing the audience to glaze over, not really understanding what’s being said.

The main culprits at our show were Paul Nolan (Orlando), Andrea Runge (Rosalind), and, to our surprise, Brent Carver (Jacques). Two years ago, Mr. McAnuff made the mistake of casting a young musical theater performer with no classical acting chops as Juliet (see this post.) He did it again this year. Mr. Nolan was superb in 2009 in West Side Story, see this post), but here, as Orlando, unaided by a microphone, he rushed uncomprehendingly through his lines, stood woodenly around the stage, and failed to project his voice.

Andrea Runge, as Rosalind, was better heard, but her volume came at the price of expression. Ms. Runge’s method of delivering a given line of Shakespeare is to pick out one syllable at random and to attack it. Each of her phrases had exactly the same dynamic shape; her voice fell off at the end of each phrase in exactly the same way.

Brent Carver, surrealistically, as Jacques

We even had trouble hearing the experienced and capable Brent Carver, as Jacques (in this show pronounced “JACK-wes,” which we didn’t understand). Mr. Carver delivered his lines with inexplicable stops and starts, and his “All the world’s a stage” speech tailed off so dramatically that we simply didn’t hear what he said about the last of the seven ages of man:

. . . second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

At our performance, the audience sat dully on its hands through much of the first part of this comedy, showing signs of life only when Ben Carlson (as the jester Touchstone) and Lucy Peacock (as Audrey, the ignorant, goat-tending object of his lust) came on stage. I had envisioned a clownish, fumbling Touchstone; Mr. Carlson’s cynical, urbane master of wordplay was a delight. Mr. Carlson, Ms. Peacock, and Brian Tree (as Adam) accounted for nearly all the entertainment value in this show. We regret the necessity of missing Mr. Carlson as Feste in next year’s Twelfth Night.

It’s a elementary responsibility of a director to ensure that his actors are heard. It’s also his job, we’d think, to ensure that a play strikes a consistent tone.  We grant, as Mr. McAnuff observes in the program notes for this show, that the first half of As You Like It, which features threats against the lives of Orlando and Rosalind, is darker than the second half. But Mr. McAnuff evidently felt that it needed to be much darker still. Ignoring both the text and the spirit of the play, he gratuitously injected two deaths (including a murder) into its first hour of this comedy.

The first death left us genuinely puzzled. At the end of Act II of the play (as the playwright wrote it), Orlando is welcomed to Arden by Duke Senior and his band of merry men, but insists that he cannot eat or rest until his exhausted old servant Adam (an endearing Brian Tree) gets some nourishment. Orlando carries his “venerable burden” in, they feed him, and after a song (“Blow, blow, thou winter wind”), Duke Senior welcomes the revived old man: “Good old man/Thou art right welcome as thy master is. Support him by the arm.”

But in this show, Mr. McAnuff has Adam expire during the song; they wrap up his corpse and carry him off. The playwright created the Forest of Arden as a place of refuge, reconciliation, and restoration. Why shouldn’t Arden have been a place of recovery and rest for Adam, as the playwright specified?

Minutes later, at the beginning of Act III, when the black-hearted Duke Frederick demands that Oliver track down his brother Orlando and bring him back dead or alive, Mr. McAnuff has the Duke show Oliver that he means business by pulling a gun and casually shooting one of his courtiers. Needless to say, the play’s text provides no warrant for this jarring bit of stage business. Why did Mr. McAnuff feel compelled to make Duke Frederick appear even more villainous than he already was — not merely a bully and an egoist, but a sociopath to boot? The stunt serves only to shock. Perhaps, in directing this scene, Mr. McAnuff was still trapped in the world of Macbeth, which he directed a year ago, in which random, paranoid murders were par for the course. Perhaps he was thinking about King Lear, in which the blinding of Gloucester and other scenes of brutal violence are brilliantly juxtaposed with scenes of tenderness and comic relief. But As You Like It is not that sort of play.

And Mr. McAnuff’s perverse decision to militarize this comedy ruined Emsworth’s favorite speech from As You Like It, Duke Senior’s ode to the pastoral life, which begins,

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp?

Act II, Scene I. No doubt there are many ways to stage this scene; we had imagined Duke Senior and his brothers in exile sitting around a roaring campfire to keep off the chill autumn air, toasting one another with hijacked ale, singing songs, and telling bawdy jokes and stories. But Mr. McAnuff had Tom Rooney, as Duke Senior, shout out his lines, not to friends in a close, convivial circle, but to half a dozen armed comrades scattered among the audience in the large Festival Theater in the posture of lookouts and sharpshooters. Not surprisingly, the effect of the speech was lost.  Mr. Rooney was delivering his toast to friends who were barely within earshot, off in six different directions.

We found even more objectionable the image of Arden as an armed, fearful camp of rebels. That’s the opposite of the playwright’s image. The men in the forest are happy and content; Duke Senior observes complacently to his friends, “Are not these woods/More free from peril than the envious court?”, and a few scenes later, when Orlando blunders into the camp with his sword drawn (Act II, Scene 7), ready to fight for food, he is welcomed with a joke from Jacques, a “welcome to our table,” and a rebuke from Duke Senior for coming into their peaceful place with a show of force.

A Magritte-like set

Then there was Mr. McAnuff’s head-scratching decision to “set” this Shakespeare comedy in the 1920s, based on his observation (in the program) that communism, anarchism and fascism were all repressive movements opposed to modern art. To be fair, we rather enjoyed the colorful, surrealistic images from which the set and the props were constructed. What we didn’t fathom was the director’s apparently sincere belief that there was some meaningful connection between the pre-modern, pre-ideological world of As You Like It and the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, when fascism and communism challenged the humanism of the Renaissance and the Reformation. What had these worlds to do with one another?

We understand that every Shakespeare director feels driven to do “something new” with a familiar play. (We understand, even if we don’t like it.)  But they shouldn’t deceive themselves into thinking that “setting” a Shakespeare play in fascist pre-World War II Europe — what a stale, over-used concept, especially at Stratford! — will actually help audiences understand the play better.

It won’t.  As the wife of our bosom commented as we were driving away from Stratford, if this sort of approach confounds adults who are familiar with Shakespeare, how much more must it baffle children and youths who are experiencing Shakespeare for the first time?

Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the Stratford Festival

Three Sisters

Irina (Dalal Badr), Olga (Irene Poole), and Masha (Lucy Peacock)

We’ve seen Kelli Fox in The Three Sisters twice now. In 2003 she was the oldest sister, Olga, in a production at the Shaw Festival directed by Jackie Maxwell; in the current show at the Stratford Festival she plays Natasha, Olga’s sister-in-law and nemesis. Kelli Fox is one of the two best reasons to see the Stratford show; the other is Lucy Peacock, who gives (pardon the cliche) a simmering performance as the second sister, Masha. Both stand out in an excellent production of what is, of course, one of the world’s great plays.

The half dozen or so Chekhov plays we have seen have fallen into two distinct camps. Some directors assume that each character must be played as if in the throes of terminal depression. When, as often happens in Chekhov plays, the Russians don’t seem to be listening to each other’s remarks, these directors call for long, awkward silences. Where an actor has a longer speech, she is instructed to step forward and intone it as if in a trance. As P. G. Wodehouse observed (through Bertie Wooster) in Jeeves in the Offing, this brand of Chekhov can be trying:

I knew Chekhov’s Seagull. My Aunt Agatha had once made me take her son Thos to a performance or it at the Old Vic, and what with the strain of trying to follow the cockeyed goings-on of characters called Zarietchnaya and Medvienko and having to be constantly on the alert to prevent Thos making a sneak for the great open spaces, my suffering had been intense.

Three Sisters

Irene Poole as Olga

That notion of Chekhov works no better for Emsworth than it did for Bertie Wooster. Fortunately, the current production of The Three Sisters at Stratford, like the one directed by Jackie Maxwell in 2003, falls into the second camp, with directors who understand that Chekhov’s characters brim with vitality and exhibit a wide range of intensely human emotions, strengths, and weaknesses.  This show is not a theatrical tone poem in a minor key; it’s about people like us that we can care about.

Three Sisters

Masha (Lucy Peacock) is, sadly, married to a good man whom she neither respects nor loves

The Three Sisters is the story of the Prozorov family: three well-educated sisters and a brother who grew up in Moscow but find themselves stranded in a small Russian village, a military outpost, a year after the death of their father. The three women — Olga (Irene Poole), Masha (Lucy Peacock), and Irina (Dalal Badr), all in their twenties — want nothing more than to leave this cultural wasteland, return to Moscow, and rejoin a social circle with people who know about literature and music. They have pinned their hopes on their brother Andrei, a violinist and a scholar with aspirations of teaching in Moscow at the university.

Unfortunately, the passionate Masha is already married to a man she does not love (Peter Hutt). As she explains to Vershinin, the only officer in their acquaintance with any cultural advantages,

I was married when I was eighteen, and I was afraid of my husband because he was a teacher, and I had only just left school. In those days I thought him an awfully learned, clever, and important person. And now it is not the same, unfortunately . . . .

Three Sisters

Andrei (Gordon S. Miller) foolishly marries a woman who comes to disgust him

And the sisters’ hopes of returning to Moscow with their brother Andrei (Gordon S. Miller) receive a blow when he develops an unfortunate attachment to Natasha (Kelli Fox), an ill-bred woman of the village. By the second act (nine months after the first), Andrei has become a husband and father, has begun a career as a petty bureaucrat, and is gambling away the small family fortune. By the final act (three years later), he knows that marrying Natasha was a colossal blunder. As he confesses to Doctor Chebutykin (James Blendick), who boards with the Prozorovs,

There is something in her that makes her no better than some petty, snake-like creature. She is not a human being. She seems to me so vulgar that I can’t account for my loving her or, anyway, having loved her.

Natasha is like the camel in the proverb who pokes his nose into a tent and ends up displacing everyone else.  (Kelli Fox gives us this dreadful termagant to the hilt.)  She bullies and shocks her sisters-in-law with her vulgarity, selfishness, and petty cruelty; in the end she drives them away from their home. Olga’s only consolation, as she reconciles herself to a provincial life as a old maid schoolmistress, is that she is able to rescue the family’s 80-year-old nanny and servant, Anfisa (Joyce Campion), to whom Natasha has been shockingly brutal. Masha and Irina have no choice but to settle for marriages to men they do not love.

The naked plot of The Three Sisters, which is much richer than three paragraphs can convey, would suggest that the play is nothing but a gloomy, metaphorical portrayal by Chekhov of all the self-inflicted wounds that were keeping Russia from advancing to modernity.  But these characters joke and tease, sing and dance, flirt and misbehave, scheme and dream.  The joy of life spills forth in every scene. 

Emsworth has three daughters of his own, presently almost exactly the same age as Chekhov’s three sisters, and was delighted to see that Chekhov was aware of how birth order influences the temperaments and personalities of siblings.  (Did we notice this when we saw the play six years ago?  We don’t remember.)  We had little difficulty in matching the salient traits of our three daughters with those of Olga, Masha, and Irina.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

The Scottish play, set in Africa! Shakespeare’s Macbeth at this post.

Classic French drama: Jean Racine’s Phèdre at this post.

The hilarious musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at this post

The Ben Jonson play Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

Bartholomew Fair at the Stratford Festival

Bartholomew Fair

Cliff Saunders as Leatherhead, the peddler and puppeteer

Bartholomew Fair deserved a fair shot. And we’re not really complaining. We got to see a play by another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and we saw a snapshot of life in London in Shakespeare’s own time. But this play by Ben Jonson at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) takes more effort than it’s worth.

In fairness, director Antoni Cimolino and the big cast did their best to make Bartholomew Fair as lively as possible. The actors scurried here and there, scolded and abused one another, sang and danced, and laughed loudly at their own jokes. There was plenty of groping and off-color humor.

But the play still isn’t that entertaining. It’s all a bit forced, like the names of the characters (like Littlewit, Winwife, Knockem, and Wasp, who was actually costumed like a wasp). At our performance, some of the audience gave up and left after intermission.

The play takes place in London on Bartholomew’s Day. John Littlewit (Matt Steinberg), a Puritan who has written a puppet play, is plotting to go to the wicked fair over the objections of his strict mother-in-law, Dame Purecraft (Brigit Wilson). Various friends and neighbors wander in and out, also intent on the fair; Littlewit encourages them to kiss and fondle his wife Win (Jennifer Paterson).

Bartholomew Fair

Tom McCamus as Justice Overdo

One of his friends is the well-to-do but dim-witted Bartholomew Cokes (Trent Pardy), who is planning to marry Grace Wellborn (Alana Hawley). Littlewit, a scribe, has drafted a marriage license for them. Cokes’s fiance is the ward of the local magistrate, Justice Overdo, who plans to go to the fair to scope out vice and crime.  One of two men competing for the affections of Littlewit’s widowed mother-in-law is an unpleasantly joyless church elder named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy (Juan Chioran).

Bartholomew Fair

Brian Tree as Humphrey Wasp, with Alana Hawley as Grace Wellborn

Littlewit occasionally makes plays on words, then boasts that he has made a “device.” This is unfortunately typical of the play’s humor. In the same vein, Cokes is noisily amused by the fact that his first name is Bartholomew, like the name of the feast-day and fair. Cokes’s manservant Humphrey Wasp (Brian Tree) has the thankless task of protecting him from his own foolishness; of all the generally good performances in Bartholomew Fair, we liked Brian Tree’s best.

Peacock

Lucy Peacock as Ursla the pig-woman

There are plenty of villains and dubious people at the fair, including Joan Trash (Kelli Fox), a faux-cripple who sells gingerbread; Lantern Leatherhead (Cliff Saunders), who peddles cheap musical instruments and hobbyhorses and gives a puppet show. Most fantastic of all is a monstrously large seller of pork and ale named Ursla (Lucy Peacock); her tent is also the base of operations for pickpockets (who target Bartholomew Cokes), pimps, and whores.

This was our second attempt at appreciating an Elizabethan playwright besides Shakespeare. Several years ago, we tried the Stratford Festival’s Edward II, but even though we read Christopher Marlowe’s play before we went, we still had trouble following the story and staying focused on the performance.  Bartholomew Fair wasn’t hard to follow. In fact, the language of the play seemed easier to understand than some plays by Shakespeare, who was prone to inverted sentence structure and long, complex clauses.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson

But our limited experience with Marlowe and Jonson simply confirms what people have known for hundreds of years: Shakespeare was in a class of his own. Ben Jonson’s characters are hardly more than caricatures; they don’t think deep thoughts, utter memorable epigrams, face great challenges, or wrestle with moral dilemmas. 

And while Bartholomew Fair has a narrative, it barely has a plot. It’s as if the playwright didn’t really expect that his audience would be playing close attention. Jonson seems to have assumed that his audience wanted only to see cliched characters indulging their carnal urges, making asses of themselves, and getting their comeuppances.

We couldn’t help thinking that Bartholomew Fair was something of a prototype for the contemporary genre of gross-out teen sex comedies like American Pie and Superbad, which have essentially the same stock characters. These follow the same formula as Bartholomew Fair: sexually frustrated young people go to a party and hook up; a repressed young thing loses her inhibitions and learns the liberating joy of sex; the local puritan is exposed as a hypocrite; the local authorities are bumbling fools who end up getting some of their own medicine.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

A kinky twist to taming the Shrew

Suppose you’re an actress playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. You’ve worked hard in the first half of the play to prove that you’re the most disagreeable young woman in Padua. How can you possibly be convincing in the final act, when you must profess and practice wifely submission and obedience?

It’s ever harder, I would think, than the job of an actor playing Othello, who must somehow show a transformation in his feelings toward Desdemona, so that his full-blown murderous rage won’t come as a surprise.

Irene Poole as Katherina and Evan Builung as Petruchio

This year’s Shrew at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), reviewed by Emsworth in this post, Irene Poole, as Katherine, attacks the challenge in a unexpected way. There’s sexual tension between Katherine and Petruchio (Evan Buliung) from their first scene together, and it grows as the insults mount and the blows fly. The hungrier she gets, and the shorter on sleep — the more he teases and torments her, you know the play — the more it seems that this Katherine is being drawn into kinky role-playing that will lead to the consummation of her marriage.

And so, in Katherine’s final re-education session, when Petruchio teaches her that the sun is the moon when he says it is, and that it is the sun again when he says so, Katherine agrees with a triumphant gleam in her eye and a mocking laugh:

Petruchio: I say it is the moon.

Katherine: I know it is the moon.

Petruchio: Nay then you lie, it is the blessed sun.

Katherine: Then God be blessed, it is the blessed sun, But sun it is not when you say it is not, And the moon changes even as your mind.

Katherina and Petruchio

With this scene, we understand that Katherine (as played by Irene Poole) is now fully in on Petruchio’s nasty little game — and she’s gotten to like it.

Thus, when Petruchio lays a wager with Hortensio and Lucentio as to whose wife is the most submissive, Katherine knows how to play her part. She ends her “bound to serve, love and obey” speech by offering to let her husband step on her hands.

Delighted with his new playmate, Petruchio is ready for the game to be consummated: “Why there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. Come, Kate, we’ll to bed.”

Will Petruchio always be dominant in this loving relationship? We doubt it. From an earlier scene, in which Katherine ties up her sister and flogs her, we already have a good inkling that Katherine will like giving as well as receiving.

Lucy Peacock as Grumio

This show’s director, Peter Hinton, prepares the audience for twisted love-play by his decision to cast Petruchio’s servant Grumio as a woman playing a woman (Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock). As one might suppose, this adds sexual overtones to their relationship of master and servant. In their first scene together (Act I, Scene 2), Grumio jests suggestively with her master about his instruction to “knock me here, rap me here, knock me well, and knock me soundly.” Later, when Petruchio finally appears for his marriage to Katherine, he arrives (in this production) in a cart pulled by Grumio with a bit in her mouth!

And in Act IV, Scene 3, Grumio participates enthusiastically in her master’s “taming” of Katherine, showing her a fine piece of beef, then mocking her as she pulls it away. The upshot of this gender-blind casting: we infer that an unconventional relationship between Petruchio and Grumio is already in place before Petruchio comes to Padua to find another woman to add to his menage.

Emsworth reviews this show in this post.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Stratford Festival (a review)

Emsworth is glad he didn’t skip The Taming of the Shrew, as originally planned. This show is a joyride, a high-spirited show with as fine a cast as the Stratford Festival can muster. It kept us laughing and entertained from beginning to end.

Evan Biulung and Irene Poole as Petruchio and Katherina; in the background, Adrienne Gould as Bianca

The dilemma in this comedy is how Baptista Minola (Stephen Ouimette) of Padua is to marry off his two daughters. For his pretty, good-humored younger daughter, Bianca (Adrienne Gould), Baptista has solid options in young Gremio (Juan Chioran) and long-in-the-tooth Hortensio (Randy Hughson).

However, for his elder daughter, Katherine (Irene Poole), an irascible, sharp-tongued girl with a limp (in this production, anyway), he has no takers. On principle, like Laban in Biblical times, Baptista will not marry his second daughter until he has found a husband for the first.

Gremio and Hortensio make common cause and agree to find a husband for Katherine so they can get on with their competition for Bianca. The situation is complicated when Lucentio (Jeff Lillico) arrives from Pisa, happens to spy Bianca, and becomes a third suitor.

Biulung and Poole

But a solution appears, and the show moves into overdrive, when Petruchio arrives in town from Verona, hoping to “wive it wealthily in Padua.” He learns from Hortensio and Gremio about Katherine and her dowry and sets out to make her his wife.

As Petruchio, Evan Buliung is a dynamic, irrepressible spirit who sweeps all before him; Irene Poole, as Katherine, is a worthy foil. The more Katherine gives him tit for tat, the more Petruchio values her and the more he revels in the tasty game of subduing her. Their scenes together are first-rate, from the saucy repartee of their opening skirmish to the hilariously cruel scenes in which Petruchio snatches sleep, food, and clothing away from his wife to reduce her to submission. (In this production, Petruchio and Katherine come to enjoy a decidedly kinky, dare we say, sado-masochistic, relationship. For Emsworth’s take on this, see this post.)

Persons considering this show should be aware that it has a good deal of disquieting and gratuitous cruelty. The people of Padua dunk Katherine in the river for her shrewish behavior. Katherine ties up her sister Bianca and whips her. And not only does Katherine strike Petruchio, but Petruchio strikes her back.

Barbara Fulton as Queen Elizabeth

At any rate, we were entertained by the extravagant, brilliantly colored period costumes and by the Elizabethan songs interpolated throughout the play and performed by various members of the cast. We admired the scrumptious Adrienne Gould, as Bianca, played here as a man-tease, nearly as much as we liked her as Ophelia in this year’s Hamlet. The comic performances of Stephen Oimette as Baptista and Patrick McManus as the flamboyant Biondello were exquisite.

And we especially enjoyed the performance of Ben Carlson as Lucentio’s servant Tranio, who like Mr. Pickwick’s Sam Weller is wittier, more voluble, and more worldly-wise than his master.

So why did we hesitate to see The Taming of the Shrew? It was not that we were necessarily put off by the unenlightened sixteenth-century treatment of women in the play. Those were different times, and Emsworth has no patience for those who cannot get past the fact that sixteenth-century England was not organized on politically correct principles.

No, we hesitated because we thought The Taming of the Shrew, which we had never seen performed until now, was one of our least favorite Shakespeare plays. Reading it, we thought the prologue scene was superfluous, and we could not see how the “lord and master” speech at the end fit with the rest of the play. And seen on the page, the play’s humor was hard to appreciate.

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

Company of "The Taming of the Shrew"

We also worried, frankly, about our ability to keep everyone straight. There are plenty of characters, some with similar names (Grumio and Gremio), and to further confuse his audience, Shakespeare has many of them trade identities. Emsworth is happily accustomed to the imposters that litter the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, but there are so many imposters in The Taming of the Shrew that it is not easy to remember who is pretending to be who.

But we worried for nothing. The direction of Peter Hinton gave this production such shape and momentum that we never felt lost or confused, even at moments when we might not have been able to give an accurate account of the characters.

For Emsworth’s take on the nastiness between Petruchio and Katherine, see this post.)

For Emsworth’s review of All’s Well That Ends Well in the 2008 season of the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario), see this post for the Emsworth review of Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in this post). Other Emsworth posts include reviews of shows in the 2008 season of the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), including Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (see this post), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (see this post), Leonard Berstein’s Wonderful Town (see this post), and J. B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls (see this post).

Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival (a review)

The 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) has its moments. But the lead actors are so weak that the show can’t be recommended.

As directed by Des McAnuff, Shakespeare’s tragedy opens in 21st-century Verona, in a public square, with motorized scooters, young women text-messaging on their cellphones, and two servants of the Capulets who are itching for a fight with the Montagues. The brawl is broken up by authorities who wield (and fire) automatic pistols.

Gareth Potter as Romeo

Meanwhile, the pride and joy of the Montagues decides to crash the Capulets’ masked ball, along with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio, in the hope of meeting Rosaline, with whom he is infatuated. As Romeo sheds his modern clothing for his ball costume, the time of the play shifts backward four centuries to 16th-century Verona, where Shakespeare actually placed his play. (After the ball, the cast appears in nifty 16th-century costumes.)

At the ball, Rosaline is forgotten when Romeo falls for the Capulets’ 13-year-old daughter Juliet. The attraction is mutual, and knowing that the Capulets will never consent to their daughter’s marriage to a Montague, the lovers arrange for Friar Lawrence, a local priest, to marry them secretly.

But Romeo (Gareth Potter) gets caught up in another streetfight with the Capulets and stabs Juliet’s favorite cousin Tybalt in a swordfight. Will Juliet (Nikki M. James) forgive Romeo for dispatching her cousin? Will Romeo escape punishment from the Prince of Verona, who is disgusted with the endless feuding? Will the violence escalate? Will the lovers ever be united?

Nikki M. James and Gareth Potter as the star-crossed lovers

Unfortunately, this show is spoiled by frankly amateurish — Emsworth doesn’t mean to be harsh, but how else to put it? — performances from the actors playing Romeo and Juliet.

The program bios indicate that director Des McAnuff has recently directed Nikki M. James as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. No doubt she shone in that role, which doesn’t require much expressive range.

But how could McAnuff have thought James could do justice to some of the most poetic lines in Shakespeare? James delivers each line in the same soprano range of her voice that she must have used to call Toto. Nor does she do well without the microphone with which she was surely equipped in The Wizard of Oz; she seems to think that the only way to be heard in the spacious Festival Theater is to shout. The most that can be said of the casting is that James is a lithe and attractive Juliet who passes convincingly for a 13-year-old.

Des McAnuff

In the program, McAnuff indicates that he sees the first half of this play as a comedy and the second half as a tragedy. That’s a reasonable way of approaching the play, given the tone and the sweetly romantic scenes in the first two acts.

But Nikki M. James and Gareth Potter seem to have misunderstood what McAnuff meant about “comedy.” They perform the famous balcony scene as if it were a joke that everyone in the theater is in on — almost as parody. And Juliet wakes everyone up everyone in the house when she screeches “Anon” to her nurse at the top of her lungs in the middle of her tender speeches to Romeo. After hearing these outbursts, I fully expected Romeo to make his excuses and slink out of the garden, grateful that he had not committed himself too far to this petulant, shrill-voiced child.

Nor does James seem comfortable with Shakespeare’s language. When Juliet learns that her new husband has been banished for slaying Tybalt, she does an extended riff on “banished.” Unfortunately, each time she bellows the word, she places the accent on the third of the syllables: “ban-i-SHED.” The effect is alarming. (A scene or two later, Friar Lawrence, Romeo, and the Nurse all pronounce it with only two syllables.)

As Romeo, Gareth Potter delivers his lines with little more real expression than James, and his voice has an indistinct quality that makes him hard to hear. Seated only a few rows from the stage, off to one side, we hardly caught a word of one key speech that he delivered from the front of the stage.

One supposes that the casting of Romeo and Juliet always presents problems like this; by definition, young, relatively inexperienced actors must be called upon to play the parts.

Lucy Peacock as the Nurse and Nikki M. James as Juliet

Despite the leads, there are some fine performances in this show. As the garrulous Nurse who can never be brought to the point, Lucy Peacock is magnificent. So is Peter Donaldson as Friar Lawrence; his rich baritone, perfect diction, and sympathetic understanding of Shakespeare’s language are a treat. Both Roy Lewis, as Montague, and John Vickery, as Capulet, convey power and dignity as heads of the warring families.

I especially enjoyed Evan Buliung as Romeo’s friend Mercutio and could not help thinking that either he or Timothy D. Stickney, who had a strong stage presence as Tybalt, would have been better cast as Romeo.

The set for Romeo and Juliet at the Festival Festival consisted of a cleverly-constructed, versatile Italian bridge that morphed, as needed, into a ballroom, a balcony, and a crypt. It also facilitated some exceptionally rapid and well-choreographed scene changes. We wished, though, that its moving action had operated more quietly.

Emsworth carps about the recent leadership debacle at the Stratford Festival, as a result of which Des McAnuff became sole artistic director of the Festival last winter, in this post.

See Emsworth’s review of the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of All’s Well That Ends Well at this post, and his review of Hamlet at this post.

The priests of multiculturalism give the Stratford Festival their stamp of righteous approval, but say the Shaw Festival still hasn’t gotten religion on “diversity”. Emsworth loses patience in this post.