Thursday, September 19, 2013

“For Never Was A Story Of More Woe . . .”

On our fourth day at The Stratford Festival, we attended a matinee performance of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo And Juliet”.

As a practical matter, the production was dead in the water, upfront, because the actor and actress portraying the title characters were so poor. The young man playing Romeo looked the part, but could not act his way out of a cardboard box. The middle-aged woman playing Juliet was more than one generation too old for the part, and her portrayal was arch and insincere (as well as insufferable).

We were told by a Stratford resident that the actor playing Romeo had engaged in vicious rows with the play’s director during the rehearsal period—the actor had accused the director of trying to destroy his career—and that the Juliet had been cast only because she is a favored pet of the Festival’s Artistic Director.

Whatever the root causes of such fatal miscasting, the audience was required to block out the title characters in order to endure the performance.

The Stratford Festival had mounted an “original practices” production of “Romeo And Juliet”. The house lights were kept up throughout the performance—which meant, in a thrust theater, that other audience members were as visible as the actors onstage. The lighting plan was fixed and unvaried; night scenes looked exactly like day scenes. The stage was bare, other than an occasional prop. The costuming was pure Elizabethan—and the costuming was cumbersome, and unattractive, and supremely unflattering to everyone onstage.

There were no pauses between scenes; actors would rush on for a new scene before actors from the previous scene had departed the stage. Several times during the course of the performance, this practice created unintended comedy.

The text was delivered as verse, not as prose. There was a pause at the end of each line; fifth and tenth syllables were emphasized, irrespective of context or sense. “Rigid, metrical delivery” was how my mother described the cast’s handling of iambic pentameter. The program booklet claimed that “singsong” utterances of Shakespeare’s text had been standard practice well into the 19th Century, and that such utterances must be replicated in an “original practices” production.

Monologues were always delivered directly to the audience. Much interplay between cast and audience was invited—but, as always in North America, the audience was reluctant to play along, preferring that the invisible barrier between stage and audience remain in place.

A quartet of musicians—lute, violin, recorder, drum—played music during much of the play (the musicians also played before the performance, and during the single intermission). The production featured endless dancing. The numerous fight scenes went on forever.

The man responsible for this hash was British director Tim Carroll. Between 1999 and 2005, Carroll had staged “original practices” summer productions at London’s Globe Theatre. Since 2005, Carroll has been trying to pick up work elsewhere. In 2008, we had encountered Carroll’s thoroughly incompetent Royal Shakespeare Company production of “The Merchant Of Venice” at Stratford-Upon-Avon.

In that 2008 “Merchant Of Venice”, it had been painfully obvious that Carroll was no director of actors. Last month’s “Romeo And Juliet” only reinforced, ponderously, that particular skill deficiency. In both Carroll productions, everyone onstage floundered; there was no sense of ensemble, no unified acting style, no emotional resonance.

In Carroll’s “Romeo And Juliet”, there was much broad—and unsightly—overplaying (by contrast, in Carroll’s “Merchant Of Venice”, the cast had appeared to have abandoned all interest in the proceedings). So over-the-top were the “Romeo And Juliet” performances, I wanted—for three hours—to leap onstage and slap numerous cast members, starting with Paris, Mercutio and the nurse.

There was much laughter during the performance, all of it uncomfortable. If Shakespeare’s tragedy had been properly registering with the audience, there would—a couple of early scenes apart—have been no laughter at all.

To my amazement, there was laughter even during the tomb scene—which, I grant, was abjectly mis-staged and misplayed.

At the conclusion of the tomb scene, Romeo and Juliet promptly leapt to their feet and joined the rest of the company in a hearty closing jig—which did not destroy the mood created by the end of the play, no one having been moved by the deaths of Romeo and Juliet in the first place. The jig, somehow, was a fitting conclusion to a production that was wrong-headed in every way.

With reference to the jig, my father wryly noted: “Well, that was one solution to the problem: how to get the bodies offstage so that the audience can leave the theater.”

Given such a tone-deaf production, I predict that Carroll, who has never had a U.S. career, will not be invited back to Stratford—nor will he find it necessary to remain near his phone, waiting for a call from The Guthrie.


  1. I saw the production in July, having unhappily missed reading the reviews that declared this the worst of all possible Romeo and Juliet productions. I would counter only that the Romeo looked more like Mr. Bean than a romantic lead (I encourage anyone reading this blog to seek out the publicity stills to see if I'm exaggerating) and that the Juliet, on the evening we attended, was the most remarkable actor on the stage. Slight praise, under the circumstances, but there it is. At least your audience responded with some kind of liveliness. During the performance I attended, the half-house watched in stupified, bored-silly silence.

  2. The audience at the performance we attended was not necessarily lively, but it was ATTENTIVE. It was also an unsettled audience, trying very hard, without much success, to enjoy the play—which may account for the fact that the audience’s laughter was uncomfortable.

    The resident from Stratford, to whom we talked for quite some time, told us that he had attended two performances of “Romeo” with a high school group—and that the students, on both occasions, had absolutely HOWLED during the tomb scene.