Thursday, May 29, 2008

First Scene of the Season "Best Possible Start"

Review of Romeo and Juliet by Robert Cushman (National Post):

"In the latest Stratford production of Romeo and Juliet, the prologue is assigned, unusually, to Friar Laurence. Peter Donaldson plays the role, and his delivery gives the new season and the new regime their best possible start. His Friar proves not only the most thoughtful but, in many ways, the most passionate person on stage.

"He rages at the two feuding families of Verona, at the recalcitrant Romeo in his more self-pitying moments, but he's notably kinder to the more sensible Juliet, and his anger is generally constructive. Like everyone else in the play he's defeated by events, which themselves are an index to human fallibility, his own included. He appropriates the last speech as well as the first, and it's partly due to him that the play seems the tragedy of a society as well as of a couple of kids.

"The society is in fact more powerfully present than the kids. Des McAnuff's staging is excellent, brawls, balls and all. The platform stage has been rounded off, warmly lit (by Robert Thomson) and elaborately but not overpoweringly built up. Heidi Ettinger's set is dominated by an arched Italianate bridge that can serve as a balcony, summon a place and even, in a fanciful way, link periods. The production starts contemporary with Vespas, prams and guns; it gets into fancy-dress for the Capulets' party and stays there, allowing, among other things, for the sword-fights to make sense.

"We only return to the present for the final post-mortems: a satisfying and foreseeable rounding-off, even if you doubt the need for modern dress in the first place. (You can't 'make' a play relevant. Either it is or it isn't. Though you can, admittedly, obscure its relevance.) The centrality of Donaldson's Friar may have something to do with his being the one character who doesn't need to change his clothes.

"A trapdoor allows for popup appearances by Juliet's bed or the Friar's pharmacopeia, the latter probably once too often. Ettinger's summoning of the Capulet tomb is awesome, a line of permanent sepulchres stretching out behind Juliet's supposedly temporary one. In the final sequence, which involves rain, Lucy Peacock's Nurse makes an unscripted but very moving appearance to take pride of place among the mourners. Her early gossipy scenes are nothing special, but once things start to go wrong and the Nurse is roused successively to indignation and accommodation and grief, she is superb. She has an unforgettable moment, smoothing Juliet's sheets to camouflage her unease at having betrayed her. The production is good at small physical things as well as big ones.

"It isn't as good at orchestrating all the performances. Some reputable actors do disappointing work: Steven Sutcliffe's Paris is ineffectual, and Evan Buliung so laboriously underlines Mercutio's sexy banter that one wonders what his friends see in him. He only becomes likeable when about to die, and it's hard to see what good an unlikeable Mercutio does the play. Some others are plain bad. Paul Dunn's clown Peter, though, is brilliant, while Lady Montague (Irene Poole) makes an unusually vivid impression, signalling her abrupt death via a couple of lines and a fair bit of directorial invention. Heading the other dignified household, John Vickery is an excellent Capulet, genial until crossed at which point he becomes volcanic.

"As for the star-crossed twosome themselves: well, they're on the right lines, she wise beyond her years, he callow beneath his. When Gareth Potter's Romeo is finally shocked into maturity --at 'then, I defy you, stars' -- he's impressive; earlier, he's never afraid to play the boy's emotional self-indulgence. What's lost between these extremes is any saving sense of a vital connection to Juliet. Nikki M. James gets much of Juliet through her eyes -- especially in her first scene where she amusedly sizes up her elders' plans for her early marriage -- but hardly any through her voice. Her long speeches disappear into space, and even her shorter ones trail off. Missing, plainly, are experience and technique; this is one performance that may well improve greatly over the long Stratford haul. The balcony scene, at least, is charmingly impulsive from both parties, though her audibility is hardly helped by the intrusion of mood-music at the end of the lovers' meeting. The best TV has given up on this kind of pandering, and even movies show signs, so it's an odd time for the theatre to start.

"Revving up the violence is another thing, but it's also the easy part. Romeo and Juliet was, as far as we can tell, the first full-blooded play about romantic love; Shakespeare in Love got that right. It remains, by centuries of consent, the iconic one. There's an audience out there, new with each generation, that wants to believe in it."

No comments: