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Television In CBC presentation of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers shine brightly amid dark male rage

Antoine Yared as Romeo and Sara Farb as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.

Cylla von Tiedemann

What light through yonder window breaks? Why it is the CBC offering two Stratford Festival productions in HD and, this time, actually alerting us to the existence of the films.

Romeo and Juliet (Sunday, CBC, 2 p.m.) is commercial-free and directed for TV by Barry Avrich. (Timon of Athens will be broadcast on CBC on Sunday, Aug. 5). Thus, as the public broadcaster says, Canadians across the country have a chance to see the work of North America’s leading classical theatre.

The stage production was part of Stratford’s 2017 season and received somewhat enthusiastic but not ecstatic reviews. It’s not an easy one to love. And for television, some of the flaws are heightened. Still, it’s a fascinating experience to embrace, this look at a rather fraught production of a story so familiar.

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It is gloomy from the get-go with a dark stage, dark costumes and you get the sense that Scott Wentworth’s direction is inspired by the stiff posture, constraining costumes and the forlorn stares of the subjects that are found in paintings of the Jacobean period. The action is unfolding in a period of repression, and subdued rage explodes often. The murky quality doesn’t make for the most accessible TV, but as soon as you adapt to it, the narrative is compellingly done.

The sword fight that kicks off the story tells us there is a lot of toxic male rage in the air, and that theme continues. It’s not so much that this version is set among “lusty gentlemen” as it is set among angry men who are used to bullying others, especially women.

In this context, Romeo (Antoine Yared) and Juliet (Sara Farb) must burn very bright indeed. Their attraction to each other must be startling, a charming, entrancing ray of hope and sunshine in the midst of so much anger and rage. This is achieved. Their first meeting and kiss is presented as the meeting of like-minded youths, both enchanted by the beauty of poetry as much as they are by each other. And so their separation from the rigid, bitter world around them, and the ensuing tragedy of that separateness, is established

The play is always difficult to steer. One problem is that to adults the two lovers are wimps. They gush and groan in the ecstasy of their attraction and it takes a complex infusion of delicacy and nobility to make their tragedy compelling. Any staging of the play is enhanced by sticking closely to Shakespeare’s ideal – Juliet is only 14 years old and Romeo is both robust and noble. That is where this production is first-rate in tone.

There have been other famous Stratford productions of the play and one was aired on CBC in 1993. That was set in a sunny Italy of the 1920s, with fascism on the rise.

As Juliet, Megan Follows was more petulant than wide-eyed with optimism about love. Antoni Cimolino (now the artistic director of the Stratford Festival) played Romeo as a lovable goof, almost as a character from a P.G. Wodehouse story about Bertie Wooster and his chums.

That production, both on stage and on TV, was, as often happens with Romeo and Juliet, dominated by Romeo’s pal Mercutio. Back then, Colm Feore played Mercutio as the king of the cornerboys – a swaggering, eloquent, dangerous rake whose sheer life force dominated every scene in which he appears. It was a stunning performance. Some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare knew he had created a totally dominating force in Mercutio and simply killed him off in order to maintain the delicate tragedy unfolding around the two lovers.

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It’s worth citing that 1992 production because this one is so very different. Evan Buliung’s Mercutio is more loudmouth blockhead than charmer, a fellow not of fine jest, but a guy representing maleness at its most maddening. Seana McKenna as the Nurse is wonderfully solid female common sense and sass, a model human being in this angry world of the play.

It is fast-paced and gripping this Romeo and Juliet, both as theatre and television. What grips you is the tragedy, the terrible naiveté of the young lovers trapped in this toxic environment. Bracing viewing, with some old December bareness of spirit on a summer Sunday afternoon.

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