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Romeo and Juliet: The comic bits pop, but where art thou, tragedy?

Daniel Briere as Romeo and Sara Topham as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, the opening production at the 2013 Stratford Festival.

Don Dixon

2 out of 4 stars

Romeo and Juliet
Written by
William Shakespeare
Directed by
Tim Carroll
Daniel Briere, Sara Topham
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Festival Theatre
Stratford, Ont.
Runs Until
Saturday, October 19, 2013

"For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo"? Well, someone forgot to carbon-copy the leads in British director Tim Carroll's "original practices" production, which opened the Stratford Festival's 61st season on Monday night.

I doubt there has ever been a Romeo who struts as cheerfully to the apothecary to procure his suicidal potion as Daniel Briere does, big-eyed and bright.

And Sara Topham's Juliet seems only slightly more invested in the tragedy unfolding around her. "Methinks I see thee, now thou art below, as one dead in the bottom of a tomb," she tells the banished Romeo standing below her balcony, as if relating a funny dream where he bought her too many puppies.

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Carroll's aloof approach seems to suggest that Shakespeare cared very little about the romance between his star-cross'd lovers. While this makes his Romeo and Juliet an original, it also leaves it with a big gaping hole where the passion usually lies.

What exactly is an "original practices" production? Well, in this case, inspired by how the plays were originally presented, Carroll has brought on musicians to play unamplified lute and recorder, dressed the cast in unwieldy Elizabethan garb and, crucially, instructed the leads to deliver Shakespeare's verse as verse.

That means we get pauses at ends of lines rather than sentences – and words stretched or shortened to keep to the 10-beat meter. ("We shall be short in our pro-vis-i-ons," says Nehassaiu deGannes's Lady Capulet, who does this the most mathematically.)

If this production, opening Antoni Cimolino's first season as artistic director, is a reaction to his predecessor Des McAnuff's occasional inattentiveness to language, it is an overreaction. With actors trained in naturalism rather than the grand but largely dead singsong style of Shakespeare, the overall effect is flat, didactic and uninvolving.

Another intriguing aspect of Carroll's production is that the lights stay up on the audience throughout as if we are at an Elizabethan outdoor playhouse. Capulet servant Peter (a marvellously funny Mike Nadajewski) comes on early to explain the time-travel game we're all playing in modern English – and to advise the audience to turn off any devices that haven't been invented yet. When a Montague then arrives onstage to deliver the exact same speech, the play's opening fight suddenly breaks out.

It's a very clever start – but, often after that, I found myself struggling to maintain an interest in the proceedings, occasionally passing the time in the drier moments by counting to 10 on my fingers.

The shared light between audience and actors on opening night actually made me feel more like I was at an Elizabethan court performance since, from my vantage point, I could watch Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne watching the show. My first response to Tom McCamus's Friar Laurence decrying a weeping Romeo as "unseemly woman in a seeming man" was to look over to see how the first female premier of Ontario reacted – and wonder, too, what the queen at the time of the play's premiere thought of that.

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Is that the experience Carroll intended? The idea, I gather, of audience and actors seeing one another is to highlight the theatricality of the writing and bring us all together in a shared illusion-making. The problem is that we are not Elizabethans – and our relationship to light is different now.

When German director and playwright Bertolt Brecht turned on the house lights last century, he did it to distance his audience from the story – so they could reflect on things like, say, how sexist Friar Laurence actually is. Indeed, I've rarely seen a clearer example of Brecht's so-called alienation effect in action as here.

It's curious what pops when the play is presented, rather than represented. The comic moments certainly do benefit from frequent interactions with the audience, and Jonathan Goad's Mercutio is a gem, sneaking a little contemporary flavour into his speeches. It's not his Queen Mab speech, however, but a later scene, usually rushed, where he tries to conjure the missing Romeo that is the standout. Other scenes I'd forgotten existed come into focus in Carroll's production – such as when Romeo passes a carnival in Mantua after learning of Juliet's (apparent) death.

The pantomime atmosphere becomes less welcome as the bodies start to pile up, though. When Friar Laurence stumbles upon Romeo's body in the tomb, he does not gasp "Romeo?" Instead, McCamus turns to the audience to ask them if it is him: "Romeo?"

For me, the big contradiction of Carroll's production is that though it intends for us to focus on Shakespeare's words, what is most noticeable is the direction. Call me new-fashioned: But I like my Romeo and Juliet with a little romance at least and much more woe.

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