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Dante Jemmott (left) as Romeo and Eponine Lee as Juliet in R+J.David Hou/Handout/ Stratford Festival

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  • Title: R + J
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Director: Ravi Jain
  • Actors: Alex Bulmer, Eponine Lee, Dante Jemmott
  • Company: The Stratford Festival in collaboration with Why Not Theatre
  • Venue: Festival Theatre Canopy
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: To September 26, 2021

Assumptions are built right into the English words we use to discuss who goes to the theatre. Audience implies a group of individuals listening; spectators implies a group of individuals seeing.

Why Not Theatre’s Ravi Jain has been artistically challenging the ideas about who theatre is for – embedded into the language of Shakespeare – in productions of William Shakespeare’s plays for a number of years now.

The director’s 2017 production Prince Hamlet centered on a performance by Dawn Jani Birley, a deaf theatre artist, as Horatio. She used American Sign Language to narrate the play as it unfolded around her as if she were urgently recounting the story to Fortinbras after he walked in on a pile of dead bodies.

Now, Jain new production R + J (he seems to again want to signal right in the title that this isn’t a standard Shakespeare production) puts at its centre Alex Bulmer as the Friar. Bulmer, a well-known stage artist in Canada and Britain who is blind, is also credited as co-adapter along with Jain and Christine Horne.

Like Horatio in Hamlet, the Friar in Romeo and Juliet is tasked with explaining to the living what happened to the dead at the end of the play. But the conceit of R + J is, instead, the Friar is being visited by voices from the past in his cell long after those young lovers’ suicides.

The word “cell” as Shakespeare used it simply means a small room – but this one seems, indeed, imprisoning for the Friar, tortured by the question of how much he is to blame for what happened.

R+J, while intended for blind and low-vision audiences as well as seeing ones, is definitely not an audio-only production. There’s a hyper-realistic set of the Friar’s house (designed by Julie Fox) on the small semi-circular stage outside the Festival Theatre where the show is being presented – and the voices the Friar hears are rarely invisible.

Indeed, there is almost too much to write about what can be seen or heard in Jain’s layered production – from the disarming effect of the youthfulness of the leads (Eponine Lee is pretty much the same age as Juliet; Dante Jemmott who plays Romeo, is a fresh-faced York University theatre student) to Tom Rooney’s glorious mid-pandemic return to the stage as one of the funniest and most compassionate nurses I have ever seen.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least in passing how I’ve never seen an actor capture the essence of Mercutio so perfectly from at first glance as Sepehr Reybod. Or if I didn’t note that Beck Lloyd is a truly frightening Tybalt – and it’s highly impressive how she swivels from that hyper-masculine role to a Lady Capulet living in fear of male violence.

But the framing of Jain’s production does dominate – and is perhaps mostly interesting to discuss in the way it brings to the surface the ways Shakespeare examines the relationship between love and seeing in Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo falls for Juliet, you might normally say, at first sight, but that this happens at a masked ball is a paradox I had not thought much about before.

The great idea Jain has here is for Romeo to hear Juliet before seeing her; she is a singer and performing for the guests at the ball.

It is her voice that attracts Romeo most immediately, giving ironic resonance to his line: “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

(The charming songs in the production are written by Lee – so their delightfully youthful perspective is unfeigned.)

Another line you might be able to quote from Romeo and Juliet is the Friar’s when he first hears that Romeo has moved on from Rosalind and wants to marry Juliet: “Young men’s love then lies / Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.” This, of course, lands differently with a Friar who is blind.

Just as Prince Hamlet played around with the conventions of sign-language interpretation in theatre, Jain and his collaborators play around with the conventions of audio-described performances in R + J.

Normally, blind or low-vision audience members would hear such descriptions through headphones –but here, entrances and exits and some crucial stage directions are described aloud by actors for all to hear.

For a sighted audience member such as myself, this felt like a Brechtian move at first – the doubling up on information putting distance between me and the story.

But later on, the audio “description” starts to diverge from the visuals; we are told a character has been stabbed, but do not see the stabbing. This is disorienting (mostly in a good way), while also calling attention to the fact that we never actually see people get hurt on stage, only imagine that we do.

The love scenes too are kept at a distance – a decision that feels as much in keeping with our COVID-19 times as the conceit of the production.

This feels as if this could all be more deeply explored in a future remount, however. As fascinating as this R + J is, it hasn’t cohered yet into a fully satisfying show. The retrospective tone of the storytelling, in particular, can feel sluggish even with a running time under 90 minutes.

I’d be interested to know what a blind theatre critic thought of it, mind you. I found Bulmer’s Shakespearean delivery a tad declamatory, for instance, but also acknowledge it might have been the clearest spoken. Now, I’m already dreaming about how Jain’s next production might explore difference in the sense of taste – maybe through Titus Andronicus?

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.