“Two households both alike in dignity/In fair Verona where we lay our scene/From ancient grudge, break to new mutiny…” Blah, blah, blah, star-cross’d lovers, and all of that. These lines are, of course, from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, the most ubiquitous of the Bard’s great works. It’s been done to death. Sweeping gowns, rousing sword fights, and moonlit balconies—been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
Then what are we to make of Stage Blue’s production of this oft-mangled classic, which sets the stage not with faux-Elizabethan finery, but with lit clotheslines hung with brightly coloured laundry, white sheets draped over the stage floor, and a stepladder on which Romeo must climb to meet his future wife? The women in the cast wear jeans and spaghetti straps rather than long skirts and puffed sleeves, and the men are arrayed in casually unbuttoned shirts and cords instead of tights. With a few simple details, director Natalie Corbett and her crew transport the play to a more modern setting, turning Verona into a homey village in Southern Italy where everyone seems to know everyone else and family always comes first.
While the idea to focus on the play’s Italian setting provided freshness to the production and gave it a traditional, folksy charm, it also had its negative aspects. The casual community feeling often caused the actors to throw away lines in attempts at lightness or flippancy, stripping Shakespeare’s words of their grandeur and resonance. It became, in many ways, Shakespeare Lite, as if some bright television exec had decided to turn Romeo and Juliet into a sitcom—“What a great idea! My Big Fat Italian Tragedy!”
For the most part, the actors fell into this sitcom trap. Dan Leberg had moments of depth as the play’s title hero, but in many scenes, he was an MTV Romeo, turning lines into soundbites without meaning. His resemblance to crooner John Mayer didn’t help—I almost expected him to enter the bedroom scene with a guitar in hand and warble “Your Body is a Wonderland” to his blushing young bride. Catriona James was the best talent among the females of the cast, yet could not quite pull off a convincing Juliet. Her husky voice and striking physicality seemed at odds with the character, and may have been better suited in another role. As her nurse, Kate Rodgers put forth a valiant effort, but only managed to elicit sparse laughter from the audience, and often seemed unsure of herself on stage when not delivering lines. Alex Corlazzoli (Tybalt), Shakir Haq (Benvolio) and Gareth Long (Mercutio) suffered from the same affectation of speaking all of their lines in exactly the same tone, as if they had no idea what the words coming out of their mouths actually meant. The standouts of the cast were Jimmy Hogg (Capulet) and Albert Masters (Friar Laurence), two actors who possessed both the authority and fluidity of speech needed to bring Shakespeare to life.
The production also suffered from various technical issues, including poor blocking choices that left actors with backs to the audience for extended periods of time, and excessive, unrealistic fight scenes. I was left to wonder if it was a case of too many ideas, because despite these numerous flaws, the play is quite easy to watch, with good pacing through its almost two-and-a-half-hour run time. In the end, Stage Blue’s Romeo and Juliet looks pretty, and sounds great, but sadly, there’s not a lot behind the twinkling lights.
Photograph by Simon Turnbull