Last night, the Stratford Festival opened with a production of Romeo and Juliet that I cannot help but see as a pointed stick aimed not so much in the eye as in the ear of the prior artistic director.
Five years ago, in his first year as Artistic Director (or, rather, co-director, in conjunction with two other triumvers), Des McAnuff helmed a Romeo and Juliet that opened with a bang – of machine gun fire, no less. Thus did he announce his arrival at Stratford’s storied stage. His production was set initially in modern dress, then segued into period with the masque at the Capulets’, only to return to modern dress in the tomb. There were things I liked very much about that production, other things I didn’t think worked at all, and some elements that just needed time to fully come into their own. But the point is, we were certainly put on notice that there was a new kid in town.
This year, the first under the exclusive leadership of Antoni Cimolino (previously General Director, now Artistic Director), the Festival begins once more with Romeo and Juliet. Though this production is directed not by Cimolino himself but by Tim Carroll (who directed a marvelous Peter Pan at Stratford three years ago), it still feels to me like the programming was a response to that previous opening show. The news: you’ve never seen a new kid with so old a head.
Once again, we begin with something modern, in this case, a prologue, replacing Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” poem. The Montagues come out and announce the play, and describe its style: this will be an “original practices” production, which means that, to the extent feasible, the play is performed as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day. Jokes about silencing mobile phones practically write themselves, and then the Capulets come out, claiming it’s their turn to do the schtick, and we segue smoothly into the opening thumb-biting action of the play.
What does “original practices” mean in practice? It means eliminating certain modern staples: no lighting cues, no recorded music or other sound, no stage machinery, almost no set – a stool here, a bed rolled on there, and that’s about it. And it means adding some period touches: live music with original instruments, Elizabethan dances, and, in this production, period matchlocks in the hands of the Prince’s men (a particularly cheeky nod to McAnuff’s fabled love of firearms). Of course, you can go even further down the rabbit hole than this production did, embracing all-male casting, or original pronunciation. But the most important implication of “original practices” is for the style of acting, most noticeable in verse and in soliloquy.
In many modern productions, the actors aim to naturalize the sound of the verse. They use the meter, but they are not shackled to it, because the paramount goal is to convey the emotional sense of the moment. In Carroll’s production, the meter is the master. The line endings are hard, regardless of enjambment, and in general the verse is delivered in a declarative style. The emotional qualities of the moment take a back seat to the formal qualities of the language – which, in turn, are supposed to convey those emotional qualities, and with more subtlety and complexity than any one actor’s performance could deliver.
Relatedly, modern productions have a choice about how to treat soliloquy, whether the actor is talking to an acknowledged audience or to herself. There’s an enormous difference, from the audience’s perspective, between being engaged in conversation directly and feeling like you are eavesdropping, and modern productions can choose which mode is more appropriate for a particular moment (and for a particular space – some spaces don’t have a proper fourth wall to break in the first place). At Shakespeare’s Globe, though, the audience was right there, visible and ready to interact with the actors. If Shakespeare’s lines appear to be written as if spoken to the audience, they almost certainly were so spoken. And so, in Carroll’s production, overwhelmingly these moments are played off and with the audience, rather than as intimations of private thought.
These stylistic choices have fairly severe consequences, particularly for a play like Romeo and Juliet that we tend to think of as essentially about the overwhelming power of emotion. Over and over again in this production, just as emotion rises, the torrent and tempest is stilled, and we listen to the formal recitation of verse.
Two examples that I found particularly striking:
First, right after Mercutio’s exit to bleed to death, Romeo’s sympathies make a sudden shift. Where he had sought to prevent the violence, knowing that Tybalt is now his kinsman through his secret marriage to Juliet, now he berates himself for turning “effeminate” under the sway of his wife’s beauty, and resolves to kill Juliet’s cousin. It’s a moment of intense emotion, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it played quite the way Daniel Briere did last night: he turns to the audience, and reasons himself into vengeance and murder. I felt like I was watching a Hamlet soliloquy. (It added to the incongruity that Briere looks so distractingly like a young David Naughton that I kept expecting him to sprout fur.) I don’t want to suggest Briere did a poor job – far from it; he was making a powerful choice. But that choice felt like it was dictated by the “original practices” style, and, in this context, had emotional qualities that, while fascinating, were also profoundly alienating, at least to me.
Second, right after Capulet comes in to the unwakeable Juliet’s bedchamber, and discovers what his Lady and the Nurse already know, he speaks these lines:
Death, that hath ta’en her hence to make me wail,
Ties up my tongue, and will not let me speak.
How do you say that you cannot speak? Do you wail through the lines? Do you mouth an initially silent scream, like Al Pacino in the third “Godfather” installment after his daughter is killed? Do you just dumbly stare, and then, when everyone else looks at you, thinking, “well? your daughter’s dead – aren’t you going to say anything?” stumble through this explanation for your silence? The choices are numberless – but I don’t expect you simply to recite them, precisely, as an acute observation on the character’s emotional state.
Again, it’s not a negative reflection on the actor that the moment, for me, played with an alarming chill. Scott Wentworth has played the part of Capulet before, magnificently, and he cuts a commanding figure in this production over and over again – in his negotiations with Paris, in his furious confrontation with his daughter, in his rebuke to Tybalt for refusing to be ruled by him when Romeo is spied at the feast, etc. But here, the imperatives of the “original practices” style worked against an emotionally powerful reading of the lines – a reading that, by the way, comes through almost immediately after, with “death is my son-in-law” (and the fact that this is the line on which emotion breaks through puts a definitively ugly spin on Capulet’s grief).
The other thing about “original practices” is that there’s no proper blocking (other than for the necessarily choreographed dances and fights and such). Where the actors hew to a rigid program in their speaking of the verse, in their bodies they are free to improvise. Which brings me to my biggest blocking question of the night: the lead-in to Romeo and Juliet’s love sonnet.
Juliet is at the end of a train of dancing men and women, heading off-stage. Romeo grabs her hand – she pulls away – and dances off. And then comes back. And then we go into the sonnet.
I struggled to understand that choice. Romeo has been telling us how beautiful Juliet is, has been admiring her from afar – I know what he’s about. But Juliet has never seen this man before, nor, in this fleeting passage, can she have had the chance even to catch a glimpse of his features. And yet she comes back, as though one touch of the hand were enough to kindle love. Why?
The playing of the sonnet doesn’t tell us. Sara Topham, who plays Juliet, is fierce in her scenes with her father, and with Friar Lawrence (an interestingly pensive, almost cold Tom McCamus), but the sonnet is played with the same reasoned quality that I discovered in Briere’s soliloquy on Mercutio’s death. There was a formality to the scene that struck me, again, as cutting very much against the emotional rush of love. Now, I have very definite ideas about what makes that scene work, but they depend upon a modern consciousness of the artificiality of verse that is hard to square, I think, with the “original practices” approach to same.
I hope this write-up isn’t understood as a negative review. There are many fine things in this production. Beyond the performances already mentioned, I should highlight Jonathan Goad’s cynically charming (and less-antic than usual) Mercutio and, especially, Mike Nadajewski’s Peter, who has never seemed so central to the drama (ironic, in a production so focused on the text, since Peter is the only character whom we know cannot read). The fight choreography is excellent – the sword-play is quite complicated – and it’s wonderful to see the faithful recreation of the period dances. Moreover, there are times when the strong stress on line endings reveals hitherto hidden readings in the text; enjambment is a classic instrument for irony, after all. But other times, it comes perilously close to sounding like the prologue to Pyramus and Thisbe.
Even when the style works well, though, it works well by making you think more about the text, and what it is saying. And I’m not sure that Romeo and Juliet rewards that quality of attention as well as other plays. I’ve seen two original practices productions before this, a Winter’s Tale at the Globe in London, and a Measure for Measure that traveled from the Globe to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. The former was a mixed bag, with some wonderful elements – particularly Autolycus and Hermione – but fell down with Leontes, who simply could not communicate the necessary emotional qualities in the declamatory style. The latter was much more successful overall – which may partly be due to Mark Rylance’s direction, but I suspect was also due to the fact that Measure is a very heady, thought-provoking play. It rewards a great deal of thinking.
Romeo and Juliet, by contrast, needs to take you on an emotional journey. And for all the pleasures of this production, I never really left my seat.
I plan to see the play again, though, later in the summer. I’ll be interested to see how it develops, and interested as well to hear what my son thinks of this very different production than the one that was his first introduction to the play.
Romeo and Juliet plays at the Stratford Festival Theater through October 19th.
UPDATE (July 26th): We returned to Stratford earlier this month, and while in town we caught another performance of Romeo and Juliet. And I’m happy to report that, as expected, the production is maturing very nicely. It’s still recognizably the same show, but everyone is more relaxed, and as a consequence their feelings play far more effectively.
Two changes were particularly noticeable. First, the chemistry between Daniel Briere’s Romeo and Sara Topham’s Juliet has improved markedly. This is not the first time that I’ve seen a Romeo and Juliet who don’t seem to connect on opening night, but whose relationship warms and deepens over the course of the run. My first reaction is that this pattern says something negative about the plausibility of the passion to which the play itself attests, but upon reflection I wonder whether it doesn’t instead point to a problem with casting veteran actors, even young ones, as the title characters. These are supposed to be kids, after all, but we almost never see teenagers playing them on stage. Is it possible that recapturing that particular hormonal quality is a tall order for people in their thirties or forties, particularly with the added pressure of opening night bearing down on your performance? I don’t know. I do know that I haven’t noticed anything similar on opening nights between Hamlet and Ophelia, and Macbeth and Lady M., or the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It. It’s something about R&J.
Second, I had the wonderful luck to see the understudy, Gabrielle Jones, go on as the Nurse, and she was simply fabulous. Understudies frequently bring a special energy to their roles, but this was more; she really brought out the deep and affectionate laughter in the Nurse, which makes her betrayal of Juliet in her hour of greatest need all the more painful. I had a similar experience re-seeing Fiddler on the Roof, with Barbara Fulton stepping in as a truly golden Golda; she had a beautiful prickly chemistry with Scott Wentworth’s Tevye that wasn’t entirely in evidence the first time I saw it. Bottom line: don’t give in to reflexive disappointment when you hear an understudy is going on. You might be in for an extraordinary treat.