Romeo and Juliet is very likely the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to stage, not inherently but because it is both so well- and so poorly-known by the general public. Everyone’s read it, or thinks they have; everyone knows the ending; and it can seem that everything’s been done. The full range has been explored on film between the polar opposites of Zeffirelli and Luhrmann, and West Side Story lurks in the background of any attempt to adapt.
Nobody is immune from these difficulties, a fact that director Jeremy Hutton acknowledges in his program note for his production at the Hart House Theatre, and for that reason he has chosen not to attempt to be original for the sake of being original. Instead, he blares Italian hip hop at us all night long. Also, Montague arrives to the opening battle as a retired gentleman bearing a bayonet-tipped AK-47. (Yes, well, why not?)
As this may suggest, this is a modernised production, a choice bringing with it a series of pitfalls that Hutton does not entirely avoid and some into which he gleefully plunges headfirst. The most obvious of these is the negotiation between Paris and Capulet for Juliet’s hand. In a period production, this scene is not particularly difficult, and helps establish that Paris is a rather inoffensive young man, just what a father would want in a son-in-law. In modern dress, however, all one sees is this nice young man negotiating to marry a fourteen year-old. This is always problematic; in this case, it is not helped by the discovery that Capulet apparently makes his money from strip clubs and having the negotiations take place while Capulet and Paris perch on leopard-skin armchairs with a number of pole dancers in the background. Just in case Paris wasn’t sleazy enough. The saving grace of this scene is Alexis Budd, who absconds with the scene as the only male among the dancers, to Paris’s great discomfort as the four half-naked dancers surround him.
From the very beginning Hutton and his crew put a great deal of effort into creating this thugs-and-hookers world, where the men carry machetes and every woman in the street seems likely to be on the game. The volatility of this world catches us from the first, though one wonders how its tawdriness will affect the main story. The answer is quite simple: the gangster world will simply vanish in the second half. Which is rather a problem, because one wonders where it has gone, where the army-jacketed, machete-wielding hoodlums fit into this tragedy of upper middle-class families. This shift in tonality does highlight how Romeo and Juliet moves from the public sphere to the private, and just how intimate a play it is after the death of Mercutio and Tybalt. But it is jarring, and partly because the crowd scenes are so well handled. The fight scenes have genuine energy and, more importantly, chaos; it is believable that the Prince would need his guards to fire bursts of gunfire to bring the opening brawl to an end. In his role as fight director Hutton can be proud, as can his assistant (Budd). The fight between Tybalt and Mercutio – a battle rather than a duel – is the most gripping I have seen.
Choreographer Melanie Mastronardi can also be proud of her work. The party scene is always a challenge, particularly in finding a way for the lovers to converse intimately in public, and this production rises to the task magnificently. The rave-like atmosphere, with mist and lasers creating a gaudy nightclub effect as Capulet welcomes his guests, makes for a believably wild night, and for once the music does not distract from the plot. More to the point, the setting allows Hutton to naturalistically create a magical backdrop for Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, as a thousand spots of green light make a star-filled night out of the party and the full company becomes an abstract, balletic accompaniment to that momentous event. It is a truly entrancing moment.
Other moments are less so, and this is where one simply has to talk about the music. I freely admit from the start that I have no taste for hip hop and therefore cannot judge whether the Italian variety we were subjected to is good or bad; I am willing to admit its effectiveness in terms of the party, as well as in the fight scenes. But the decision to use it as a soundtrack to every scene change in the first half of the evening is simply a mistake. Unlike the Einaudi piano music used for the quiet moments and in the second half, the hip hop is simply loud, and ruins every quiet scene it follows by jerking the audience away from the atmosphere that has just been created to this new one. This is particularly egregious at the end of the balcony scene. It might be argued for were that scene followed by one of high energy; but rather the transition merely leads to a scene of passed-out hoodlums and hookers into which Friar Lawrence bicycles.
Scott Moore, as Lawrence (and also speaking the Prologue) is quite good, his innate cowardice being nicely revealed at the end. However, though it is fair enough to see him involved with drugs, given his opening monologue, I have to question his purchasing them from a stoned thug lying on the ground. The moment could have been used to indicate a moral flaw in Lawrence, his willingness to break rules, but not enough is made of it for this to seem anything more than gratuitous.
Romeo, meanwhile, is played by a hairdo, a remarkable coiffe that holds the eye’s astonished gaze as it moves about the stage while Paolo Santalucia, on top of whom it perches, speaks Romeo’s lines. Perhaps I jest unfairly: it is a pleasure to see an understated Romeo, though it does lead him to occasionally appear more luckless than a mover of his own tragedy. Perhaps the Prologue’s ‘star-crossed’ was taken literally, as not only does Tybalt kill Mercutio under Romeo’s arm with a bullet from across the stage – surely reducing Romeo’s guilt in the matter – but even Paris’s death seems the accidental result of a struggle rather than an intended act. Fate works against this Romeo more than he does himself. Beginning, quite rightly, as a word-happy emo kid, he quickly outgrows that to become a quiet and sensitive fellow. It is noticeable that he does not attempt to fight Tybalt on his own terms, but shoots him. All in all he is convincing, though he suffers from some of the director’s choices. In particular, there is no excuse for his addressing ‘But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?’ simply to the window, without Juliet there to be the sun of which he speaks.
Darwin Lyons as Juliet manages some effective moments in the quieter parts of the play, and her giddiness at the end of the balcony scene is convincingly charming.
As Capulet, Jesse Phillips gives a fine performance. He is especially good when Juliet defies him. Though he is made to batter his daughter – something directors never seem to be able to resist doing, just in case the words didn’t make it clear enough that Capulet is acting the tyrant – he also gets across Capulet’s genuine disappointment in his daughter, the fact that he truly has been doing everything in his power to assure her of a happy life. It is worth noting that until the previous evening’s party, by all accounts Juliet agreed with him. One feels that Capulet lashes out quite so harshly not merely because it is his nature (his thrashing of Juliet mirrors exactly that he gives Tybalt at the party) but also that with Tybalt’s death he feels events pressing in on him, and his daughter’s intransigence leads him to snap.
Particularly fine are Mercutio and the Nurse. Mercutio is a role that steals the show whether or not the actor tries to, and Joshua Browne both tries and succeeds. Switching between bouts of hyperactive physical activity and utter repose, his rapid-fire delivery of his lines keeps up a high level of energy, and his charismatic ascendancy over his friends is entirely believable. But there is an edge of instability to him, too: by the end of the Queen Mab speech, it is clear that Romeo has to stop him, because not only will he otherwise go on forever, one feels him coming close to losing his grip on reality. That edge returns in time for Mercutio’s duel with Tybalt, where his disgust with Romeo’s pusillanimity turns to genuine violence against Tybalt, leading to, as I said, the most memorable Mercutio/Tybalt fight I have witnessed.
Meanwhile, Lesley Robertson, whom I last saw as Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, gives a brilliant performance as the Nurse, possibly the best acting of the evening. Much younger than usual and therefore closer to a friend of Juliet’s than a mother or grandmother figure, she offers a richly nuanced characterisation that leads one to feel depths to the Nurse one simply does not expect to find there. On the page the Nurse is a rather one-note character, and a silly note it is, too. Robertson finds a full three-dimensionality for her. One feels that the Nurse has a past beyond a dead daughter and a dead husband, and though what that past might be can always be unknown, its presence makes itself felt. The Nurse seems to be caught up in the excitement of Juliet’s first love and not necessarily thinking it through until it grows too late. Torn between her love for her charge and her realisation that things are spinning out of control, her final betrayal – advising Juliet to marry Paris – seems not a sudden break but a logical outcome, particularly as the advice is obviously difficult for her to give. One tiny moment sums it up: finding Juliet (apparently) dead on her wedding morning, the Nurse sees a bottle in her hand, the vial that held the sleeping draught. Clearly thinking that Juliet has committed suicide, she takes it and hides it to cover up that fact before she calls for help.
It is in such tiny, subtle details that this production truly shines. Another example that comes to mind is the aforementioned parallel between the violence Capulet dishes out to Tybalt and to Juliet. What may go unnoticed is that in the wake of Tybalt’s public humiliation, Juliet goes to comfort him. It is rare to see a production suggesting that Juliet might actually care for her cousin, and it strengthens the sense of Juliet’s isolation when, having been on the receiving end of much the same beating, she finds no comforter herself.
Against such subtleties, we must balance the idea that a pair of sunglasses is enough to disguise Romeo’s identity at the Capulet party, and the major question of the first half: what’s with all the hookers? And why must every effective, quiet moment be followed by blaring hip hop?
Despite its tonal unevenness, however, on average this is a fine production, with a good crop of supporting actors. Premier Dalton McGuinty lookalike Mark Paci is a very good Prince, both commanding in tone and ineffectual in action. Jeremy LaPalme’s Benvolio is darker than he is usually shown to be, a frequenter of prostitutes (in whom he tries to interest Romeo), and for once Mercutio’s attacks on him as a quarrelsome man seem believable. As Tybalt, Johnathan Sousa is less in evidence than in many productions, pointing out that it is in fact quite a small role; he makes the most of it, however, adding the extra dimension of Tybalt’s utter humiliation at being publicly thrown to the ground by his uncle. The lighting is excellent, and the sets above-par for what one expects from a university production.