Stage Door Review

R+J

Friday, August 20, 2021

✭✭

by William Shakespeare, adapted by Ravi Jain, Christine Horne & Alex Bulmer, directed by Ravi Jain

Stratford Festival & Why Not Theatre, Festival Theatre Canopy, Stratford

August 15-September 26, 2021

Friar Laurence: “A greater power than we can contradict

Hath thwarted our intents” (Act 5, Scene 3)

Director Ravi Jain has restyled the title of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as R+J to signify both that it is an adaptation and that it is something new. Baz Luhrmann used the plus sign for the same purpose in his 1996 film Romeo + Juliet and just this January 30th Carey Williams’s film with the even hipper title R#J was released.

One of the justifications for Regietheater in Europe is that the classics, particularly in opera, have been staged so often that the works need to be reimagined by a director to stay fresh. Something similar could be said concerning certain plays by Shakespeare at Stratford that have arguably be staged far too often. Romeo and Juliet was last staged at the Festival just in 2017 and Jain’s production is the twelfth in the Festival’s history.

It is therefore completely natural that an imaginative director like Jain would want to do something different with an overdone classic. What he decides to do is one of the oldest tricks in Regietheater – to present the action from the point of view of someone who is not one of the major characters. Jean-Pierre Ponelle did this back in 1979 when he staged Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at the Met as the dream of the Steersman.

At least for R+J Rain has not chosen a nearly irrelevant character as his focus as did Ponelle. Rather, as we are told from the stage, we see the entire action of Shakespeare’s play in the form of the reminiscences of Friar Laurence. Laurence, though thought of as a minor character, in fact plays an important role in activating the plot. He secretly marries the couple, he gives Juliet the potion inducing a death-like sleep, he sends Romeo to Mantua to await further instructions and his absence at a crucial moment from Juliet’s side in the tomb leaves her alone to commit suicide. At the end of the play he is the only character who knows all the details of the two young lovers’ story and he is willing to suffer punishment for it.

Jain’s focus on the Friar has the potential to unlock the peculiar nature of Shakespeare’s tragedy where neither one of the young couple is guilty of hubris as in Greek tragedy. Rather they meet and die as a result of a series of accidents. Jain shows his insight into the play by beginning with the Friar’s speech about nature:

Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;

And vice sometimes by action dignified.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Two such opposed kings encamp them still

In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;

And where the worser is predominant,

Full soon the canker death eats up that plant. (Act 2, Scene 3).

Many people attempt to understand this passage by applying it to the two lovers. Strangely enough, it more closely applies to the Friar himself whose good intentions in helping the lovers also contribute to their demise. Seen another way, the verses also apply to the Montagues and Capulets, who have allowed rude will to dominate grace.

Since Jain is more on the track to getting to the root of what this odd tragedy is about, it is a pity that he does not emphasize the revelation in the tomb about his actions: “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents” (Act 5, Scene 3). Instead, Jain has the Friar speak this so hastily that many may miss its import. Also, since Jain has minimized all the scenes of conflict, except the the sword fight  between Tybalt and Mercutio, or placed them in the background, he never allows us to see what purpose the “greater power that the Friar speaks of may have had”. As the Prince notes in the final scene (omitted by Jain): “Capulet! Montague! / See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love”. All this underscores the Friar’s realization that human means to stop the feud are futile. The “greater power” has demanded what Capulet calls the “Poor sacrifices of our enmity”.

Jain’s production itself is a mixture of good and bad ideas. The most unusual aspect of the staging is that it is set on Julie Fox’s extraordinarily detailed set depicting the blind Friar Laurence’s living quarters including his fridge and kitchen sink. This is the most detailed set of any that I have seen for any outdoor production at four different festivals this summer. The question is, “If we are supposed to be viewing the action of Romeo and Juliet the way the blind Friar sees it, why is the set so minutely detailed? Why is there a set at all?” It seems perverse to emphasize our sightedness while underlining the Friar’s blindness.

The Stratford Festival brochure states that “R+J is accessible to blind and low-vision audiences through an integrated audio description”. What this means is that the actors also speak the stage directions along with their lines. The problem here is that if the play is meant to present the Friar’s reminiscences of what happened, the spoken stage directions make it seem as if he is remembering listening to an audio book rather than having experienced anything in real life.

The peculiarity of this procedure is most prominent in two scenes. The fight between Tybalt and Mercutio is totally described without the two opponents ever coming near each other. Is there no way for Jain to present the action in a way that will satisfy both those with good vision and with poor vision?

One tends to wonder if Jain is actually interested in the Brechtian alienation effect of actors describing rather than performing their actions. After all, he used the same technique in his depiction of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes in is Hamlet of 2017, and that production was not intended for those with low vision.

The method pf presentation becomes deliberately obstructive in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Jain has the two speak their dying lines to each other from opposite sides of the stage which goes completely contrary to the sound that a person of low vision would expect from what they say. (This is not due to the pandemic 6-foot separation rule since the actors have violated that throughout the show.) Ultimately, Jain’s technique of “integrated audio description”, rather than providing audio description earphones for those who need it, generates all the excitement on stage of seated actors rehearsing at a table.

Jain further undermines any seriousness about the two lovers by turning their deepest expressions of love into what look like outtakes from television pop music specials. The speeches that demonstrate the unity between the two you people are those about the “two blushing pilgrims” spoken when the couple first fall in love. The speeches, given their rhyme scheme, form a sonnet imbedded in the midst of the blank verse of the masquerade scene. Jain has the two two sing their lines two each other using handheld mikes. Not only does this look tacky but the distortion caused by the amplification means we can’t hear the words clearly, not exactly a boon for the vision impaired.

Given the caveats noted above under Jain’s direction the actors give generally fine performances. Alex Bulmer, a blind actor, gives  an empathetic performance as Friar Laurence, cringing as he recalls each of the missteps of his fruitless attempts aid the two lovers. Bulmer has such a way with words that she certainly could have made the Friar’s late insight into the workings of the “greater powers” a climactic moment had she been so directed.

Dante Jemmott is a real find as Romeo. He speaks clearly and communicates a full understanding of the text. He conveys Romeo’s youthful tendency to idealize his experiences and when his Romeo collapses in a fit of weeping when visiting the Friar, it does not provoke laughter but sympathy. It is only when Jain encourages outright shouting that Jemmott loses vocal control.

For a change at Stratford, Eponine Lee makes a convincingly teenaged Juliet. She also speaks with admirable clarity but tends to convey the general emotion behind Juliet’s lines rather than their often complex nuances. In a production which has cut the text to a running time of one hour and 22 minutes, it seems rather an indulgence for Jain to include two songs written and sung by Lee not based on the text and that do nothing to further the action.

Rick Roberts has little to do as Capulet except to deliver an excoriation of Juliet, who refuses to obey him, that is so fiercely misogynist it is frightening. Beck Lloyd is a strong presence as Tybalt and she makes the most of of her few lines as Lady Capulet to signify that she is both embarrassed by her husband’s rage but too fearful to oppose him.

Sepehr Reybod as Mercutio and Lisa Nasson as Benvolio have their stage time cut to the absolute minimum. Mercutio has no Queen Mab speech in this version and seems to appear in the play for the sole purpose of being killed by Tybalt. Benvolio supplies a few good words of commiseration and that’s it.

Following Jain’s predilection for gender-reversed casting, Tom Rooney plays the Nurse. To contradict every previous production of this play, Jain has decided not to make the Nurse a source of humour. There is little he can do about the Nurse’s long speech about her own child Susan and Juliet being of an age which is so clearly written as comedy. Yet Jain does manage to have Rooney deliver all of the Nurse’s subsequent speeches, including her “out of breath” speech of Act 2, Scene 5, as purely serious. Rooney strongly represses all the camp that his casting could provoke.

Jain deserves much credit for using his focus on the Friar to uncover more nearly than any other production of this play I’ve seen the mysterious mechanism that brings about the tragedy. The great Canadian critic Northrop Frye always used to say that Romeo and Juliet was much more like one of Shakespeare’s romances than one of his tragedies. As in A Winter’s Tale (1611) it is a world broken in two that requires a sacrifice (the young lovers in the early play, Mamillius and Antigonus in the later play) and repentance in order to heal.

It’s too bad that Jain is not able to follow his insight to its final conclusion. The point of his staging may be to show us how the Friar is still racked with guilt about his role in the deaths of the young lovers, but for some bizarre reason this Friar is not so racked with guilt that the Nurse can’t put him to bed for a sound sleep, thus giving the play the weakest possible ending.

For sheer invention the radically cut drive-in style production by Spontaneous Theatre last year using only four actors still stands out as a triumph of imagination. That production had the inherent alienation device of every actor playing several characters. Yet, unlike Jain’s R+J we actually cared about the two lovers, and their deaths, no matter how many times you had seen the play, still came as a shock. Sometimes the the more closely one looks into older texts the more modern they appear.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Dante Jemmott as Romeo, Rick Roberts as Capulet, Tom Rooney as the Nurse, Alex Bulmer as the Friar, Lisa Nasson as Benvolio, Beck Lloyd as Lady Capulet, Sepehr Reybod as Mercutio (behind pillar) and Eponine Lee as Juliet; Dante Jemmott as Romeo and Eponine Lee as Juliet;Dante Jemmott as Romeo and Alex Bulmer as the Friar; Eponine Lee as Juliet and Tom Rooney as the Nurse. © 2021 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.