|Romeo & Juliet|
We have seen--and greatly enjoyed--minimalist/traditional Shakespeare productions before--a wild The Winter's Tale in Cleveland a couple of years ago and two different shows (Titus Andronicus and The Two Noble Kinsmen) at the Blackfriars Theater in Staunton, Virginia, a place that hosts productions that attempt to re-create the ambiance and the staging of productions at Shakespeare's original Blackfriars (indoor) theater in London. So--as I said--I was hopeful when I saw the bare Festival stage.
The opening was clever. Some players dressed in the liveries of the Capulets and Montagues came out to make the amusing pre-show announcements ("turn off all communication devices not yet invented"--that sort of thing); a competition between the groups grew and morphed into hostility, and the present sort of dissolved into the past--like that old film technique, one shot dissolving into another--until we realized that the characters were now in character and were delivering Shakespeare's lines at the beginning of R&J, though cut slightly (and the Prologue--with its "star-cross'd lovers" stuff is gone, too), and the show was off and running toward its inevitable conclusion.
The houselights--as they do in Staunton--remained low, so the players could see us; we could see them; we could see one another--the same as it would have been in the outdoor venue, the Theatre (the Globe did not open till 1599--after R &J), where Shakespeare's company performed. No special effects unavailable to Shakespeare's company were used. Juliet's entombed body rose from the floor through the trapdoor--but this was an effect possible at the old Theatre.
And I loved so many of the "touches" the Stratford production employed. Actors entering as others were exiting--overlapping one another--a dramatic ebb and flow. Actual musicians (playing period instruments--lute, violin, tabor, pipe) flowing in and out of the story. Period dancing. The balcony scene played from the same sort of spot where it surely occurred at the Theatre. And I loved the direct interchanges with the audience: The players frequently spoke lines directly to folks near the stage, joked with them, poked fun at them.
And some moments were magical. The "Queen Mab" speech is one of the most famous in Shakespeare--and it can be a great piece for Mercutio to deliver. I've seen some horrible versions of it, Mercutio throwing himself all over the stage in some sort of frenetic attempt to help the audience understand. Jonathan Goad (one of our Stratford favorites) did it differently--more quietly--using sharp diction, graceful hand movements, an elastic face and lithe body, and--most important of all--his patent understanding of the text to make that speech so lucid and lucent that he held the audience spellbound. I've never seen anyone come close to what he did.
As I wrote the other day, I'd also had a (stupid, insensitive, sexist, ignorant, ageist) worry that Sara Topham, a thirteen-year veteran of the company, was "too old" to play Juliet. Duh. She was luminous. She found all of Juliet's energy and bounded around the stage like the young enamored teen she is supposed to be, veering wildly from one raw emotion to another--like a middle-schooler on the eve of her first dance. Yet she, too, delivered every word with her customary intelligence and clarity. Anyone who didn't understand her was just not paying attention at all.
Some of the smaller parts--especially Tom McCamus (another favorite) as Friar Laurence--were exactly what they were supposed to be. Scott Wentworth found both the heart and the anger of Capulet. The Nurse, Tybalt, Lady Capulet--all so good.
And as for Romeo (young Daniel Briere) ... he was in some mighty company (see above) but held his own and found a sweetness in Romeo--and an adolescent's mercurial temperament--but also the ferocity when he battled Tybalt. (The stage combat throughout was excellent.) He is a talented young man who has a long, long career ahead of him.
And the end! Oh, the end! It was common in Shakespeare's own company for shows to end with a jig--the players prancing around, sometimes even acting out ribald skits, sending the audience home in a more exuberant mood. Even though Joyce and I have seen every play in the Shakespearean canon onstage, we had never seen the jig--not until last week. And it was thrilling. The dead came to life and danced again. And the audience left the theater both educated and animated--which, of course, is the intent, isn't it?
Later, back in our room, I read online a very negative newspaper review of the production--and was shocked. (The critic seemed more upset about what the show wasn't than what it was.) But both Joyce and I were excited, talking happily about it all the way back to our room downtown (a good mile or so). I know that I had just seen Shakespearean theater the way I love it. When performers must rely principally on their intelligence and their skill to create characters that we believe. And I had participated in the production. Because, you see, the Elizabethan stage demanded that the audience do so. There are no lighting effects (told it's night, you must imagine it is so), few special effects (you must imagine what you are told), virtually no scenery (you must imagine a rich Italian interior, a street in Verona, a friar's cell), few props, and so on.
Shows done in traditional Shakespearean fashion thus become a collaboration: the players' efforts and skills ignite our imaginations. And, the next thing we know, we're being transported, off into a world of wonders where we float on a rich sea of words, words that keep us buoyant even when they bring us the most dire of messages.