STRATFORD, Ont. — By the time we get to the balcony scene, we know just how well the Stratford Festival’s new production of Romeo And Juliet is working.
From the beginning, we’ve sensed that it is firmly on the side of youth — which is exactly as things should be in Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed young lovers. We’ve already seen it in the beautifully executed ballroom scene when Antoine Yared’s Romeo, his simmering romanticism just waiting for release, sets eyes on Sarah Farb’s Juliet, a vivacious 14-year-old primed to yield to the first flickers of adolescent yearning.
But then comes the balcony sequence, one of the most captivating moments in the Shakespearean canon, when we find our Romeo, gauche and fumbling but fuelled by an ardor he probably can’t define, gazing up in rapture at a Juliet so enchanting that she must indeed “teach the torches to burn bright.”
It’s something that happens infrequently in performances of this play but here we seem to be in the company of genuine teen-agers in all their vulnerability, Scott Wentworth’s exciting production at the Festival Theatre is geared to evoke the magical bliss of young love but it’s also prepared to send an icicle through its heart. Wentworth doesn’t compromise when it comes to the earthbound reality of the bitter rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues or the dire consequences of a romance between Romeo and Juliet, two youngsters doomed by the dangerous chasm dividing their respective families.
Furthermore, the look of this production suggests that the normally sunbaked streets of Verona have been taken over by a repressive culture. There’s a Jacobean rigidity to designer Christina Poddubiuk’s dark, forbidding costumes, a sense of dangerously fettered emotions. Louis Guinand’s often sombre lighting and Paul Shilton’s atmospheric music offer further suggestions that these youngsters have fallen in love in an unkind, uninviting world.
Beyond the enmity separating the Montagues and Capulets, there is also a frightening parent-child divide evident here. One of the production’s most unsettling moments occurs when Randy Hughson, excellent in the role of Capulet, turns savagely on his daughter, Juliet, after she rejects her pre-arranged marriage to Paris. What happens is an act of physical assault — one whose shocking images are still lingering in the memory at the end of the evening when the mourning Capulets stand over the bodies of Romeo and Juliet.
The play is unusual in that we know from the beginning what is going to happen. The opening chorus, spoken here with quiet resignation by Sarah Dodd, acknowledges the dreadful inevitability of the story. Yet the glorious verse and the urgency of the narrative compel us to keep watching and listening.
Romeo’s quick and secret marriage to Juliet will hold no more than the tenuous promise of a better world — and even that will quickly collapse with Romeo’s slaying of Tybalt and the calamitous consequences of that action.
In directing this play, Wentworth strikes a sympathetic balance between the giddy delights of young love and the final tragedy. So in that amusing and beguiling balcony scene, we are seduced by the buoyancy, urgency and recklessness of adolescent love. But then come events that trap these two in a maelstrom over which they have no control.
If the emotions in this production seem to have an unusual immediacy, perhaps it is because of the prism that Wentworth holds up for us. This sensitive and discerning director seems to be subscribing to Harley Granville Barker’s description of Romeo and Juliet as “a tragedy of youth as youth sees it.” In Antoine Yared and Sara Farb, he has two young performers of great charm and presence. At the same time, their portrayals, interconnecting with each other as easily as two fingers on a hand, always ensure that Romeo and Juliet are not idealized and romanticized beyond credibility. “Passion is destructive,” Somerset Maugham wrote in connection with this play — and here, for all their innocence and vulnerability, we have two young lovers blinded by passion.
When Yared’s Romeo collapses to the ground writhing in mental anguish, he is doing more than displaying his grief. He is also losing his ability to cope with what is happening to him. Some actors fail in this role because of a reluctance to let loose with their emotions. Yared shows no such fear: we can believe that as he paws the soil in his misery he is “taking the measure of an unmade grave.”
The beauty of Sara Farb’s performance is that she does come across as a lively, impetuous, loving, and fallible 14-year-old. The revered English critic J.C. Trewin considered Juliet to be a potential minefield for any actress. “She needs more than a child’s experience,” he once wrote, adding that “experiments with very young actresses have usually failed.” Farb succeeds triumphantly in giving us a 14-year-old who can talk and think as a child and who now, in her rapture, believes herself capable of putting away childish things. A new maturity is struggling take hold, and we want to believe in it while also seeing its tragic fragility.
This is a production graced by a pair of unusually convincing title performances, but they receive strong support from the acting company. Wayne Best is Friar Laurence, appropriately frantic as a bumbling but devoted ally to the young lovers. Evan Buliung swaggers gleefully through the role of Romeo’s seemingly indestructible friend, Mercutio, but there’s an inner turbulence here. This fine actor triumphs in the set-piece moments — an idiosyncratic but revealing rendition of the Queen Mab speech, a bang-up sword battle with Zlatomir Moldovanski’s thuggish Tybalt — but the performance increasingly reveals a chilling fatalism.
There’s also the glory of Seana Mckenna’s performance as Juliet’s nurse — raucous, street-smart, possessive, garrulous, bawdy and capable of possessing the stage like a cyclone. She is fiercely, irresistibly alive. Has any one at Stratford ever done this role better?
The play is full of contrasting moods — a major reason why composers keep being drawn to it. Wentworth has intertwined them into a final dark thread that becomes an essential presence even during the tearful moments of reconciliation at the end. You wonder whether Wentworth was mindful of W.H. Auden’s uncompromising reminder of how Elizabethan audiences would feel about these two teen-age suicides. Their real tragedy, Auden warned, lay in the fact that “suicide is a mortal sin, and that suicides go to hell for all eternity.” Such thoughts seem to inform Wentworth’s riveting but tough-minded reading of this play. Conclusion: It’s the best Shakespeare to be seen at this year’s festival.
(Romeo And Juliet continues until Oct. 21. Further information at 1 800 567 1600 0r stratfordfestival.ca)