The Stratford Festival is refusing to revert to cheery clichés when it to comes to Shakespeare this year.
After a dark (and, unfortunately, dreary) Twelfth Night to open the season, now we find a Romeo and Juliet directed by Scott Wentworth that is clearly in the same misogyny-saturated imagining of Italy as The Taming of the Shrew.
From the gross threats of rape in the opening brawl, to Mercutio's sexual harassment of the Nurse, to Capulet's treatment of his daughter Juliet as his property, nothing is gently glossed over here.
The clear benefit: Romeo, despite his famously wandering eye, is an immediately likeable figure, standing out simply for talking to a young woman as a human being. No wonder Juliet's ready to marry him at little more than a glance in this nightmare world for women. (One lady, shockingly, gets a sword in the eye in the first moments of the play – an innocent bystander to the Montague/Capulet feud.)
When this Romeo and Juliet begins, the heart does sink for a second: Visually, we're in a land of pumpkin pants, ruffs and candelabras illuminating the Festival Theatre's bare stage – usually signifiers of a musty and overly reverential production.
But Wentworth uses the wooden thrust and pointy balcony designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch as it was meant to be used – fluidly, cinematically, scenes almost overlapping as cut quickly from one to the next. A vivid pace makes sure we never get too far ahead of this overly familiar tale.
At the same time, while this Romeo and Juliet may be costumed in a customary way, the cobwebs have been dusted off of the text, making you feel as if you're hearing it for the first time.
Both Romeo (Antoine Yared) and Juliet (Sara Farb) are first seen with notebooks – in love with language, particularly of the written variety, before they fall in love with each other.
The dialogue that leads up to their first kiss, as is well known, forms a perfect sonnet – and here Wentworth allows both characters to be aware of the structure of their speech.
Romeo uses iambic pentameter to flirt, counting out the syllables on his fingers – "If I profane with my unworthiest hand …" – and then leaving that hand up for Juliet to touch. Juliet responds in the same way, raising one finger to his at a time to the rhythm of her response: "Good pilgrim, you wrong your hand too much."
My heart ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum ba-dummed along with this – how marvellous to have the connection formed between these two teens being due to their shared precocious artistry, rather than mere sexual attraction.
While words bring Romeo and Juliet together, they're also what tear the two apart. First, of course, their names. "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet," Juliet says – Wentworth using the less familiar second quarto version of the line, but one that fits in well with his focus.
The inability of Peter (Victor Ertmanis) to read the names of the guests invited to the Capulet's ball is funny as always, but it also seems to foreshadow here how the written word will ultimately let the romantic leads down later on when a crucial letter goes astray.
Wentworth's production is full of such ominous portent – his chief idea being to turn the Chorus (Sarah Dodd), who tells us the entire plot in the prologue, into a recurring presence (an idea that Shakespeare seems to have considered himself and then abandoned).
Romeo regularly sees the chorus and four silent women holding orbs of light – often after either he or Juliet speak of dark visions or dreams.
I hadn't realized before how often they do: Romeo and Juliet seem aware of their fate, and almost eager to embrace it. They each take a turn abandoning language and howl and scream in front of the Friar (Wayne Best), holding daggers to their throats and threatening to silence themselves for good; it's almost as if they're searching for a reason for suicide.
There are lighter moments, thank god: Farb and Yared have a great connection, the question of sexual chemistry having been put slightly to the side. Despite his emphasis on the language, Wentworth does find many ways to make pretty pictures out of them – one memorable one involving Romeo lying flat on the stage, another the two holding on to opposite ends of a rope.
If it seems I'm giving short shrift to the performances, it's because most here are in service of the story – and clear, but unaffected line readings rather than clever ones are the norm. But there is a perfect portrait of the nurse from Seana McKenna, chatty but never condescending to the character. Clichéd characterizations are avoided top to bottom: Evan Buliung not overdoing Mercutio or trying to make him cool, Gordon Patrick White making Paris simply seem like a person rather than a dork or dullard.
There are a few puzzling aspects to Wentworth's production, and it is perhaps too aloof from emotions other than doom than I would like. But I did leave fascinated once more with a play that tends to lose me as soon as Mercutio leaves the stage – and that's an accomplishment.
Romeo and Juliet (stratfordfestival.ca) continues to Oct. 21.