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Stage report: Romeo and Juliet (Hartford Stage)

Your Humble Blogger was fortunate enough to have a chance to see The Hartford Stage’s production of Romeo and Juliet this past weekend. As always, I enjoy watching Shakespeare productions in part to disagree with the choices. There is always something to disagree with; there is almost always something surprising that I like. Shakespeare, eh?

This production, if you follow the linky thing, proclaims that it was inspired by the Italian neorealist cinema, which I know only a tiny bit about. It worked—within the framework I talked about in 2010 it’s a Something to Do concept, not a Brilliant Idea, but you gotta have Something to Do, don’t you? The cast looked good in their postwar outfits, and there was an excuse to strip Mercutio down to bathing trunks, so that was all right. Unfortunately, as a Darko Trejniak production, I went in with very high expectations for the visuals, and was disappointed. There were a few lovely moments, but the center of the stage was taken up with a sort of marble elevator that raised and lowered for no narrative reason, and I hated it. The balcony in the tomb was also problematic thematically (as was a gate with a padlock that Romeo broke, while Paris and his linkboy came in through the vom, so there was clearly some other unguarded entrance somewhere, but fine) and I disliked the noise of people tramping through the gravel pit. Also, the actual neorealist cinema was not just realist stylistically but in subject matter (that is, it focused on the ordinary lives of ordinary people, not the grand feuds of the one percent) so it felt to me at odds with R&J on that level.

Still, having all the action of the play overseen by a massive tomb wall was a nice touch, and I absolutely loved Mercutio on a bike. Mercutio on a bike! In fact, that was probably the best part of the whole thing: in his first scene, he circles round and round the stage, irritating his buddies with his restless energy. At his last moments, trying desperately to mount his bike and ride off, irritably pushing his buddies away with a plague! and then coughing up blood and collapsing in a crash, all very very good indeed. And there were some lovely, lovely bits with the lights, particularly when Romeo’s gang are prowling at night and, as they pointed their flashlights at each other, the focus of their attention was suddenly illuminated. I can’t imagine that was all done with the flashlights themselves, but whatever supplemental light came from the big lenses was unobtrusive, so the impression was that it was all thrown from the onstage actors’ torches. And then play with shadows during Queen Mab… really, the lighting was extraordinary, as far as I’m concerned. The sound design, with incidental music underscoring individual moments and one utterly perplexing scene of offstage conversation piped through the speakers, was not.

The real problem with the play (other than that awful marble elevator, I mean) was that the title characters were the least interesting thing onstage. They weren’t bad, in the sense of seeming fake or awkward or ‘stagey’, just not terribly interesting. And, alas, inferior at handling the verse. The actors playing Friar Lawrence and Capulet (Juliet’s father, that is) were really lovely at the verse. The actor playing Capulet was particularly good, appearing natural (or realistic, I suppose) while conveying the sense of some quite difficult lines and keeping the majestic rhythm of the language. Friar Lawrence has to explain the sleeping-potion bit of the plot twice (once beforehand to Juliet, once afterward to the Prince) and kept it interesting both times, which must be a terrible challenge. But their skill with the verse made me realize something about the play that hadn’t occurred to me before: the actors playing Romeo and Juliet have to be persuasively young and yet have the facility with playing verse that comes from long experience. That’s a problem.

Of course, it’s our current generation that demands that our Romeo and our Juliet be convincing teenagers. We focus on the youth of the star-crossed lovers to explain their poor decisions, and I do believe that’s a valuable interpretation, but together with our (waning, I think, but still dominant) adulation of naturalism as a style of acting, it means that our actors may be fresh out of drama school. At drama school, of course, they have a lot of other things to learn than Shakespearean verse, so even those getting a really good grounding in it will not yet have spent the ten thousand hours that (apocryphally) make a master. Our Friar Lawrence and our Capulet each had two dozen or more Shakespeare plays under their belts, and it showed. Our Romeo and our Juliet listed five each, and it showed. Nothing against them, and maybe in twenty years they will be wonderful with the verse, but they aren’t yet.

This was exacerbated somewhat by dreadful blocking choices which largely stranded Juliet in place to give her long poetic monologues without the use of the stage’s width or depth. This was particularly bad in IV,iii, when she imagines herself unrescued and permanently entombed: O, if I wake shall I not be distraught, environèd with all these hideous fears, and madly play with my forefathers’ joints, and pluck the mangled Tybalt from his shroud, and, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone, as with a club, dash out my desp’rate brains? This bit comes 35 lines or so (depending on cuts) into a longish speech that requires but doesn’t necessarily get close attention. Similarly with Romeo’s speech in V,iii: O, here will I set up my everlasting rest and shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh! and so on. They’re wonderful speeches, if the actor can make the verse work, but it’s hard to do that, and it takes more experience than most actors in their twenties have. My own preference would be for actors who have the experience, even if that means that Juliet looks forty, but that’s just me.

I'll also mention that this is the second R&J Your Humble Blogger has seen in the last twelvemonth, and the one I saw in the summer had something I had never seen nor heard of, that worked very well indeed. The Balcony Scene (you know the one) was interrupted twice or thrice by revelers from that dinner party walking through the gardens. There were three advantages to it: first and probably least important, watching Paris drunkenly groping a maidservant is a helpful background to believing that marriage to him might actually be a fate worse than proverbial. Secondly, the interruptions provide an immediate cause for Juliet’s second thoughts (as when she decides that It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden, too like the lightning) which keeps her from seeming dithery and ditsy. And most important, it underscores how crazy and irresponsible they are, particularly Romeo, how actually dangerous and exciting and risky the balcony scene is. That tends to get lost in productions, particularly once he starts climbing, as the two can seem enveloped in a dream bubble, untouchable and serene and kinda dull. Particularly if they have trouble with the verse.

Oh, and another thing—why isn’t the Prince at Capulet’s party? He’s not; there’s a list of the people invited, and he’s not on it, and one would expect that if he were there, they would mention it. Still and all, his presence should really work: he would be showing Paris around, Capulet would be trying to impress him, Mercutio would be trying to avoid him… Tybalt’s outburst would be very ill-timed, which would make Capulet’s angry response fit better; in general, it would be a reminder that the Prince is in charge in Verona. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production where he shows up, though. And it’s not as if directors have been particularly cautious about messing around with the text in other ways.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.