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.