Friday, August 2, 2013

Disenchantment: Two Shakespeare Plays at Stratford

Daniel Briere (Romeo) and Sara Topham (Juliet) at the 2013 Stratford Theatre Festival (All Photos by David Hou)

There’s a reason Romeo and Juliet is so popular with teenaged audiences. And with theatre companies hoping to attract teenaged audiences, of course. To begin with, the plot is relatively straightforward, for Shakespeare, anyway; the action is frequent and noisy, and it’s all about young love – tragic, heart-breaking, parentally disapproved-of young love.

In the Stratford Festival’s Romeo and Juliet, British director Tim Carroll has given us a forthright production. This quality is partly a function of his theory of “original concept” Shakespeare, plays done as closely as possible to the way they would have been produced in the Bard’s era: with declaimed texts, plain sets, Renaissance-style costumes and a fair bit of interaction between the cast and the audience. The audience also shares the lighting with the actors, apparently to give the effect of an afternoon performance at the open-air Globe theatre. (Though original practices – in Stratford’s case, at least – do not include boy actors playing the women’s roles and standing room only for the audiences. And there is electrical lighting; you don’t want to go overboard with this stuff.)

The result, in this case, is perfectly adequate, but somewhat bland. All the usual Sturm und Drang is there – the brawling boys from the two great houses of Verona, the Montagues and the Capulets; the big party at the Montagues’ palace, crashed by the masked Romeo and his gang; the jolly Nurse, the outraged parents, tricky Friar Laurence, the star-crossed teenaged lovers – and Carroll has an on-stage band of musicians (drum, flute, violin, lute) to accompany the songs and provide incidental music.

The cast is fine; this is Stratford, after all, and the festival doesn’t go in much for bad acting. Romeo (Daniel Briere) and Juliet (Sara Topham), though they look their youthful parts, seem the most restrained by original practice. They appear to struggle with the language, which comes across as slightly wooden even in the most romantic and dramatic moments. Original practice? Perhaps. There are excellent performances from several supporting actors: Jonathan Goad’s Mercutio is vital and full of personality; Kate Hennig is the picture of motherly fussing, and Tom McCamus, as Friar Laurence, handles the language better than most and portrays convincingly the priest’s misdirected concern and helpfulness. Despite the quality cast and Carroll’s decidedly different approach, however, the production is oddly flat, lacking passion or even youthful enthusiasm.

Carmen Grant (Isabella) and Tom Rooney (Angelo) in Measure for Measure

I realized something while watching the Stratford Festival’s production of Measure for Measure: I hate this play. The plot hovers somewhere between silly and cruel, most of the characters are unpleasant, either stupid, hypocritical or cruel, and the resolution is so gratingly sexist that it is almost unwatchable, even in as professional and well made a production as this. You think The Merchant of Venice is a “problem play”? Try figuring out Duke Vincentio’s out-of-left-field proposal to Isabella, the novice nun who has been one of the most emotionally abused of the Duke’s victims.

It’s not this production’s fault. Stratford’s 2013 Measure is capably directed by Martha Henry and well played by a host of mostly veteran actors, and the production values are typically high. But over and over again while watching it, I kept thinking of the lines from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods./ 
They kill us for their sport.” All right, nobody dies in Measure for Measure (except a pirate who deserves it). And the “wanton boy” is not a god, but Duke Vincentio (Geraint Wyn Davies), absolute ruler of this Shakespearean Vienna. He weaves a complex plot with no apparent purpose except to embarrass Angelo (Tom Rooney), whom he leaves in charge of the city while he goes gallivanting off into the countryside, and – it seems – to torment as many of his citizens as possible. I think if I never see Duke Vincentio’s absurd, senseless and fundamentally cruel “sport” again, I will not miss it.

Geraint Wyn Davies as Duke Vincentio (center)
As the play opens, Vincentio is turning the reins of power over to Angelo, by all accounts an honest and upright man, and charging him to enforce laws, particularly laws regarding sexual behaviour, which have been laxly enforced of late. Then the Duke leaves town and disguises himself as a friar. Following instructions, apparently with reluctance, Angelo arrests and sentences to death Claudio (Christopher Prentice), who has gotten his fiancĂ©e Juliet (Ruby Joy) pregnant before their marriage. Claudio sends a message to his sister, Isabella (Carmen Grant), begging her to intercede with Angelo, to have the execution stopped. She does so, only to have Angelo – in as ludicrous and out-of-character a development as I have ever seen in theatre – tell her he will cancel the execution if she has sex with him. What follows is a boiling pot of lies, treachery and misdirection, secret messages, late-revealed characters and motivations, a false execution, disguises and the old substitute-woman bed-trick, all of it vigorously stirred by that wanton Duke, still in his friar’s robe.

I’m willing to put up with a lot of plot absurdity and loathsome characters – Othello's Iago springs to mind – to bask in the glory of Shakespeare’s language. But Measure for Measure is simply too much. The play has not sprung a host of phrases and words into the English language, as have, for example, Hamlet, Lear, Merchant and Othello. And for sheer, incomprehensible repulsiveness, Angelo and Vincentio are just about neck and neck. A plague on both their houses (to paraphrase Romeo and Juliet).

- Jack Kirchhoff is a recently retired arts journalist from Toronto. In the past 35 years at The Globe and Mail, he has been a publishing reporter, theatre critic and book review editor, among several other things.

1 comment:

  1. "I’m willing to put up with a lot of plot absurdity and loathsome characters...– to bask in the glory of Shakespeare’s language." Doesn't that reduce the text to mere noise? Possibly musical but devoid of content.
    Read Hamlet's speech to the players.