Last Friday I was ever so kindly offered a comp to go see Romeo & Juliet at the National Arts Centre. I went, as one does.
Here’s the thing. We all know this play. We read it in English class and then some of us read it again outside of class, we played the nurse in high school (except for the shortest and prettiest of us, who might have been cast as Juliet), we watched the movies, we cried, we learned the Queen Mab speech for theatre school auditions (well, maybe that was just me). So if you’re going to do it, you have to DO it, or else it’s going to feel like Shakespeare 101, and the NAC is better than that.
At least I thought it would be.
They went for a very traditionalist approach, with Renaissance costumes*, a thrust stage, and a fairly standard interpretation of the text. I had no problem with this. I enjoy all these things. What I objected to was the mediocre acting and sloppy staging.
The English Language Theatre produced the play, and their company played the older roles. The younger roles, including the lovers, were given to recent graduates of the National Theatre School. It was a nice idea, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the school. The unfortunate part was that the performances were incredibly flat.
You know when an actor brings Shakespeare alive by breaking the iambic rhythm and saying the words the way that a person actually talks? Yeah, that wasn’t happening here. It was pentameter all the way, baby, like they were reciting poetry for a high school language arts competition. Also, Mercutio was all pelvic thrusts and bravado, which annoys me. He’s the most intelligent and nuanced character in the freaking play, and they made him into a strutting fool!
But the real tragedy here was the complete and utter lack of any chemistry between Romeo and Juliet, complemented by a dearth of any compelling displays of charisma on either of their parts. The whole point of this play is the spontaneous and uncontrollable passion between these two characters. If that chemistry is not visible, then none of it makes any sense. The magic is that when you’re that young, your love is all-encompassing and eternal. Every nuance is life and death. Young people respond to the play because they identify with that powerful, all-encompassing emotion. Older people respond to the play because we remember what it was like to love to recklessly and whole-heartedly, before we became jaded or cautious or just plain sensible. Without that passion, the play is nonsense.
The older actors in the play made a much better effort of it, though the screeching, comedic portrayal of the nurse was a bit grating on the nerves. Lady Capulet deserves serious praise for managing to be both compelling and honestly emotional in a production where everyone else seemed to be on automatic pilot. She was the very clear emotional core for me in this production, which was an interesting experience, as I don’t think I’ve ever related to Juliet’s mother before.
There were a number of sloppy and just plain bizarre staging concepts. Prop apples dropped abruptly from the catwalk in the first act, and the actors spent the rest of the scene twitching nervously and trying not to step on them. A dress form in Juliet’s bedroom was not removed during a scene change, and so it ended up hanging out in the tomb, an awkward witness to the least tragic suicides ever (as my fellow-playgoer commented: I thought they were good when they were dead). And the way that they had people tearing around the stage during the final act, I felt like I was watching a door-slamming farce!
All in all, I left the theatre scratching my head. We were told before the play that the essence of the production was meant to capture the spirit of youth. All I can say is that if that’s the spirit of youth, the future is going to be pretty dreary. Except when the apples drop.
*Bitchy costume aside: if you are going to go for traditional, period-looking costumes, and you decide to have the nurse help Juliet out of a dress on stage, then INVEST IN PERIOD CLOSURES so that the third wall is not broken by METAL SNAP BUTTONS glinting in the stage light.