The most famous love story of all time opened the 56th Stratford Shakespeare Festival with a thud that could be heard around the world.
From the pair of set-dressing scooters with nowhere to go (the book-end scenes featured modern dress to hammer home the universal timelessness of irrational, but deadly, family feuds) to the three-ring-circus, breathless set changes to credibility-lite demises: unconvincing (County Paris—played by Steven Sutcliffe—expired with a couple of wallops to the torso and bum); overkill (Timothy Stickney as Tybalt received a Sopranos throat-slit for good measure). The errant bullet during the opening melee in Heidi Ettinger’s earth-tone-rich Veronese piazza barely missing an oblivious infant crying from fright in a carriage had the momentary sickening effect (suddenly, the howls ceased …), yet came across as contrived as a tabloid headline.
Des McAnuff’s vision was murkier than the copious amounts of smoke (pouring water on the feast fire an odd touch of business) that wafted into the front rows and as mundane as composer Michael Roth’s African-drum-laden score (too loud by half in the early going). Stratford’s last-artistic-director-left-standing couldn’t find an overall tenor or tone with which to bind the disparate parts of Shakespeare’s masterwork into a satisfying whole.
How could this happen to such a stellar institution?
Either inspired by or perhaps just wanting their lines to be heard above the musical fray, the cast largely yelled and spat their way through the fabled script with nary a moment of quiet introspection or pregnant pause to let the Bard’s subtle brilliance and wry understanding of human foibles sink in. The MTV pace may have been a hit with the many younger faces (cheers to the marketing department) in attendance, but akin to lip syncing and massive editing that doth music videos make, the ability for live theatre to dig deeper into truth than digital conglomerations was largely missing during the frantic action.
Sadly, the naughty bits, led by Evan Buliung’s, er, cocksure, crotch-grabbing, sword-stroking antics made his death prior to intermission a mercy killing for which a judge would never convict. No “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” here. More’s the pity since Buliung’s acting skills can be first-rate (notably Journey’s End at the 2005 Shaw Festival), but when encouraged to shamelessly court the cheap laugh (aided and abetted by costume designer Paul Tazewell’s fancy-dress jocks that would make the “family jewels” straps sported by the droogs in A Clockwork Orange seem junior-petite) he’s a gusher that can’t be capped.
The overarching visual metaphor of black/white couples (both sets of perennially squabbling parents and the doomed pair whose union could end the fighting without a cause) works well as a concept and looks great on stage (Roy Lewis and Irene Poole for the Montagues; Sophia Walker and John Vickery for the Capulets; Gareth Potter, Romeo and Nikki M. James, Juliet) but fails to be underscored with gesture, glance or deeper-than-superficial passion that could have made those deft casting choices sear through the production in unforgettable fashion (see Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version for a master class on blocking and movement as magnificent artistic glue).
Initially, James brings her magically sweet voice into the service of crafting a fourteen-year-old who is forced to become wise before her time but can’t resist slipping into the sitcom tone of a rebellious teenager. In an instant (“bye and bye” most foul) she morphs from damsel to delinquent—again, getting the laugh but losing empathy. She is also saddled with a moving balcony that inadvertently transports her from the famous “Wherefore art thou?” moment to the bow of James Cameron’s Titanic.
Potter looks like a Romeo, moves like a Romeo but falls many degrees short of igniting the heat of young lovers who can’t wait to delve into each other’s private, secret places—thwarted every step of the way by circumstance. Finally in bed prior to banishment (for him, a fate worse than death), he bounds out from the sheets with his trousers wrinkle free while his mate reveals her consummation night apparel as a nightie with which you could sleep with your sister. This is not a cry for gratuitous nudity and lock-lip inhalations of each other’s face, but a plea to bring the story into the realm of credibility by creating that pivotal moment as caringly as the all-skin poster that drew the patrons into the arena of unbridled lust and love.
Here’s an R&J for the twenty-first century: frenetic speed, lots of yuks and precious little to savour along the way. JWR