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theatre review

Bard on the beachDavid Blue

With the ubiquity of Romeo and Juliet – a tragedy so glossed over it has erroneously become shorthand for romance – there is something audiences, readers and even some productions may forget about Juliet Capulet: She is 13 years old. She is an adolescent. Her body is blooming into womanhood but she is driven by a still-childlike mind and no doubt turbulent and confused (remember 13?) emotions.

Kim Collier does not forget. In her production of Romeo and Juliet at Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Juliet's youth is emphasized – and central to understanding the strange events in this story – so familiar an element of the Western canon, but still so incomprehensible. Juliet's immaturity is not only key to grasping her actions, but also serves as a metaphor – at the same time as an innocent foil – for the behaviour of the two feuding families that leads to the play's great tragedy.

When we first cast eyes on Juliet (Hailey Gillis), she is bouncing onto the stage in pyjamas and French braids, holding the strings of three large red balloons, which bob behind her. She is every bit the almost-14-year-old: still a girl but on the cusp – a little bit boy-crazy and capable of falling deeply, dramatically in love (or what she mistakes for love).

Gillis embodies this in-between state beautifully, supported by Nancy Bryant's smart costume design – the girlish PJs, a party frock rather than ball gown for the Capulet ball and finally pink wedding wear that is more pretty princess dress-up fantasy than Vera Wang elegance.

While Andrew Chown does a fine job as Romeo, it's Gillis's Juliet who captivates – and dominates. I read this as intentional: In Collier's hands, this is Juliet's story.

In fact, an equally – if not more – stirring love story in this production to the infatuation between teenagers is the bond between Juliet and her nurse, played by an enrapturing Jennifer Lines. The scenes between the two women are charged and gorgeous. Lines's nurse is not a crusty old lady (as the nurse is often portrayed) but a beautiful woman at midlife, a widow who remembers love – and lust – and remains very much in tune with these emotions. She gets Juliet, and is a deeply caring and empathic maternal stand-in for Juliet's actual mother (Dawn Petten).

Cold and removed, Petten's Lady Capulet is revealed slowly and subtly throughout the play. First she seems simply icy. But then we detect a heartbeat in the form of envy for her daughter's relationship with the nurse. Finally, we receive crucial insight into Lady Capulet's behaviour through the actions of her husband (Ashley Wright) – a domineering household dictator who pushes marriage to Paris (Shaker Paleja) on his daughter with no regard for Juliet's grief.

As you may recall from your English lit studies, Romeo and Juliet has the elements of comedy in its first half, but abruptly becomes a tragedy midway – when Mercutio and Tybalt are killed. This is the event that changes everything – and the play transforms from a love story to a textbook (yes literally, for most of us) Shakespearean tragedy.

The comedy element in this production absolutely sparkles. Andrew McNee and Ben Elliott as Romeo's buddies Mercutio and Benvolio are so, so good – hilarious and electric together with their bromance chemistry. McNee in particular is outstanding – and not just with the jokes. This is a masterful performance. In death, his thrice-declared "a plague a' both your houses" is a spine-tingler, each time. The downside of this magnificent performance was the hole left by Mercutio's absence for the remainder of the play.

The era in which this production is set is intentionally ambiguous, with period but also contemporary elements – electronic music at the Capulet ball and show-home decor, right down to a silver bowl filled with green apples on a marble kitchen-island countertop. Bryant's costumes are multiperiod as well – velvet capes, but also hoodies. In one scene, Friar Laurence (Scott Bellis, who is very good) sports the traditional robes of his vocation – with modern-day headphones around his neck. In a show full of subtleties this was one detail I found to be a bit much, a little unnecessarily loud. (That said, it got a huge laugh from the audience.)

Pam Johnson's austere set is dominated by two enormous concrete-looking wall units, which open up to become, for instance, a closet full of dresses in which a 13-year-old girl can hide; or move around to reveal a party setting – or a hidden balcony. With all of its configurations, it's ingenious, for sure (it is shared with Bard's other main-stage show, The Merry Wives of Windsor – set in Windsor, Ont.) but felt cumbersome, with a lot of performer muscle being thrown into moving it around.

But these are light burdens in a fine production – where women live in a man's world but are viewed through a feminine and feminist lens. Watching Collier's take on this play, which is ostensibly about love but is really about the consequences of hate – one can't help but wonder: Who could Lady Capulet be, liberated from her hot-tempered husband? What could Verona accomplish, governed with the kindness and empathy Juliet's nurse employs in guiding her adolescent charge? Without the weight of ancient hatreds, what could Juliet – and Romeo and Mercutio – have grown up to become?

Romeo and Juliet is at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver until Sept. 23 (bardonthebeach.org).