The story of Romeo and Juliet is so well known and oft told that it surprises me when someone says they haven’t seen it on stage. I’m lucky to say that the 2017 production at the Stratford Festival was my third, and I have to admit, I think it is my favourite production to date. Director Scott Wentworth created an intelligent, engaging production which even had a few surprises up its sleeves. I was able to take in three performances as well as shadow this production, and I found something new and inspiring about the play every time.
One aspect which I appreciated immensely was the incorporation of the Chorus. Most of the time we only get the first speech (which is actually a sonnet) from the Chorus, however Wentworth’s production makes use of the full sonnet frame with the Chorus appearing at the end of the Capulet’s party. Romeo and Juliet’s shared sonnet was drawn attention to by their counting out the syllables in the first lines each of them speak. I was thrilled to get to see it fully done, as it highlights the poetical, romantic, sonnet-worthy beginning to the play, which is in stark contrast to the tragic ending. However, I was surprised that the Chorus did not complete the opening sonnet. The last two lines, which are the most self-reflexive, were cut and even more interesting was that the ones at the end of the second sonnet which completes the frame were not cut. While I have no answer for these editing choices, they were certainly interesting and piqued my curiosity! And I loved that the Chorus got the final lines of the play instead of the Prince; given the amount that the Chorus and her widows were used in the play (I’ll get to that in a minute) I thought it was very fitting.
The other MAJOR difference that I noticed was that during the balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet never touched. You might not think that it’s a big deal, but it’s one of those small things that make a huge amount of difference. In many cinematic and theatrical version, Romeo scales some kind of trellis to reach his beloved for a romantic kiss goodnight. But what is overlooked is Romeo’s request later in the play to have a rope ladder made to get in and out of Juliet’s window for their wedding night. If he’s able to reach her that first night, why need the rope ladder the next? It’s one of those aspects that I had never thought of before, and it goes to show how much time Scott Wentworth puts into the text of his productions. It was so inspiring and it’s an aspect of the show I know I won’t overlook whenever I get the chance to direct this beauty.
Romeo and Juliet were both played expertly well by Antoine Yared and Sara Farb. I loved how changeable and moody Romeo was; that’s exactly how I learned that Romeo was supposed to act when I studied the play in University. And Juliet’s outbursts of impatience were indicative of her mere 13 years of age. I felt like a believed them in a way I haven’t really felt able to do before. These are such iconic roles and I felt that these two actors did an amazing job at bringing them to life.
There were several stand out performances aside from the young lovers. Seana McKenna’s Nurse was the most loveable, bumbling, hilarious nurse I’ve seen. There’s always a level of truth and honesty to Seana’s performances, it lends a whole other level of beauty to the performance. Wayne Best’s Friar Lawrence was the most comical and truthful Friar, and it comes through in the audience’s reaction to him. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such laughter at the Friar’s lines before, and that’s because of how expertly they were delivered. I also must mention Evan Buliung’s Mercutio, as admirable as he is rascally. Evan’s delivery of the Queen Mab speech, a personal highlight every time I see this play, was completely entrancing. The flow of it was almost like a stream of consciousness, but every detail was told so vividly I thought Mab had visited me, too. These are just a few stand outs amongst a stellar cast who clearly give it their all every performance. I cannot express how much joy I’ve taken in getting to watch them perform as many times as I was able to.
A few other aspects of the play that I found interesting and innovative was the use of the pre-recorded voices for the quarreling at the beginning of the play and the laments of the people once Romeo and Juliet have died. It gave such a sense of the unseen public’s involvement in this family feud. I think we forget how much their fighting is affecting the community at large and ultimately that’s who Romeo and Juliet’s self-sacrifice benefits. The Widows were also an interesting function throughout the play. Led by the Chorus and carrying celestial orbs, they were like a concrete representation of the universe. On one hand they were associated with death, ferrying the dead on and off stage, but on the other they were part of life, being the vessel for the flowers Friar Lawrence picked. They were mesmerizing, and their presence was always a sign that something major was about to happen. Last, but not least, was the Apothecary Romeo visits in Mantua. The man himself had all the air of mystery and fear surrounding apothecaries and the like at the time. With his bird skull mask and long black coat, he’s a stark contrast to an otherwise vivid and colourful production. What was more was Romeo being visited by the souls of the slain while he’s there. Being taken in by the widows, you see deaths past and yet to come frightening Romeo. However, what scared me the most was that the Apothecary picks up a young, ill child and carries him away. I nearly screamed the first time as I hadn’t seen the child there. Where is he taking him? Why did he take him? So many unanswered questions….but it’s likely better that they remain that way.
I was extra fortunate this year in that I got to shadow a performance of this production in September. As a theatre practitioner, it’s an experience which as gone from being interesting to essential. It’s an opportunity not only to meet more amazing people who work at the Festival, but also to learn how a large company functions and then bring all of that back to my productions here at home. I was happy to work with a totally new crew on this show, because while the basics are the same each team does things a little bit differently, and it was interesting to see how this show in particular was handled. One aspect that was different was that fight call had to be done on stage for the large brawl at the beginning of the show. The levels of the Festival stage aren’t able to totally be mimicked in the rehearsal hall, and with one of the widows getting cut in the check, that level is required to ensure the angle is correct and no one gets hurt. Fight choreography is something that interests me now more than ever, because there is so much work and effort that goes into keeping everyone safe on stage but still making sure that as an audience member I’m still convinced of it’s legitimacy. It’s an intricate dance that requires such skill and diligence, I can’t help but admire it as an art form all it’s own.
The hustle and bustle back stage always amazes me. There are so many possible entrances and exits for that stage, that it makes for a lot of running around for the ASMs keeping track of everyone and making sure they’re in their places. It’s quite the maze back there, especially under the stage, that I fear I would get terribly lost. Yet to be able to navigate such a giant building in a matter of a few flights of steps is hardly believable, even as you’re doing it. I love getting to sit with the Stage Manager, high up above the stage, and have that bird’s eye view of everything. It’s an amazing perspective on the theatre. When Juliet goes to visit Friar Lawrence to get the sleeping draught, Wayne Best uses the trap door in the stage as his cellar. The light that emanates from it is a beautiful effect, but it’s essentially aimed straight at the SM booth. Marie (the amazing SM), says to me “In a minute here, you’re going to want to lean back.” “Why?” I asked. “Well, you can see for yourself,” she replied “but Friar Lawrence’s cellar light is about to blaze up here. I’ve forgotten and blinded myself a few times, so now I have a written note for it.” And no lies, there was a note in her call book. She also wasn’t lying about the strength of that light. I looked over, just to see how powerful it was, and I had little light spots in my eyes for at least 2 minutes. (Lesson: always listen to your SM). It’s always great getting to talk to the staff about what it’s like to work at Stratford and hear their stories. I received a lot of encouragement and advice, and I can’t thank them enough for that.
Even cooler still was that I was able to see the show after I had shadowed. That doesn’t often happen for me and I have to admit it was a surreal experience. To sit in the audience, knowing full well what’s happening on stage and in the booth is a really awesome feeling. You have this more full sense of the production, and I could appreciate the performance all the more. I love that I was able to take two friends to see this play as well as go with my family. To be a part of their first experiences seeing Romeo and Juliet on stage is something I’ll never forget. And with this year’s 65th anniversary celebration having taken place around this production (which I was also so lucky to happen to be in town for), this was truly the most amazing year for Romeo and Juliet, and I was so happy to have been a part of it.