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Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, North American Premiere (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)
Review date: 24 August, 2016


After two days of bloody battles and “hurly-burlying” on Canada’s Stratford Festival stages (Macbeth, Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V), the North American premiere of Shakespeare in Love was a most welcome fantasy journey into what director Declan Donnellan calls Tom Stoppard’s “dream of Shakespeare.”

Based on the screenplay of the movie by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (that surprised everyone by grossing over $100 million at North American box offices in 1998), the new play is adapted for the stage by Lee Hall and captures much of the magic of the original movie while adding thrills that only a live production can accomplish. The play first opened in London in 2014 and adapter Hall estimates that the play retains “around 90%” of the original movie’s script.

Set in London in 1593, theatre manager Henslowe’s feet are being held over the fire (literally) until he makes due on his debts to money lender Fennyman. His only hope is Shakespeare’s promise of a new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, that the Bard has doubly sold to his competitor, Richard Burbage. Perhaps needless to say, madness ensues as the play morphs into Romeo and Juliet and, in search of a muse, Shakespeare discovers both the actor of his dreams and the love of his life in the beautiful Viola de Lesseps. The problem is, Viola is promised, by Queen Elizabeth herself, to Lord Wessex, and, disregarding the potential peril of his best friend Kit Marlowe, Shakespeare offers up Marlowe’s name when Wessex threatens to kill him for “wooing” his wife to be.

What follows, in the able hands of director Donnellan, is a frenzied, madcap series of witty scenes spouting references to the greatest hits of Shakespeare and John Webster’s to the delight and glee of the knowing Stratford audience.

Stephen Ouimette is perfect as the constantly besieged Henslowe, Steve Ross offers a fun foil as Burbage, Tom McCamus is hilarious as ruthless businessman turned actor Fennyman, Rylan Wilkie is bold and pathetic as Wessex and Brad Hodder shines as the star turned supporting player Ned Alleyn. It’s never easy to play a character that everyone in the audience feels they “know,” yet Luke Humphrey creates a sincere, confused, besotted, redeemed Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola matches Humphrey’s passion and honesty scene-by-scene. The mature Stratford crowd tittered vociferously when Shakespeare’s bare-buns shine with the moon in the rapturous love scenes—a fun surprise reversal of the movie’s focus on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola!

Saamer Usmani is marvelous as Shakespeare’s loyal friend and fellow playwright Kit Marlow and Tal Shulman is an impeccably creepy John Webster (as he should be). Sarah Orenstein sparkles as Queen Elizabeth and it’s a well-cast and finely tuned company overall.

Nick Ormerod’s ingenious scene design is cleverly manipulated for both on stage and back stage action and the clothes, quick changes and gender switching demands are accomplished with aplomb and Kevin Fraser lights it well. Jane Gibson’s choreography and Terry King’s original fight choreography are eye-catching and entertaining and Paddy Cunneen’s work as composer along with Peter McBoyle’s sound designs enhance the rapid fire pace of the play while capturing the ever-changing moods of the transitions from boisterous rehearsals to intricate private moments between the lovers.

This is a “new” Shakespeare play that will be making the rounds of Shakespeare Festivals for many years to come as playwrights Tom Stoppard, Marc Norman and adapter Lee Hall balance the playfulness of Midsummer with the fights of Henry V and the cleverness of The Taming of the Shrew, envisioning the beginnings of the Bard’s glorious reign as Western civilization’s greatest playwright.

Shakespeare in Love plays in the Stratford Festival’s intimate Avon Theatre through October 16.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Member, American Theatre Critics Association
ISE Theatre Critic

Permanent link to full entry 08:22:20 am. Categories: Stage Performances  

Romeo and Juliet

The gun metal grey of a bitterly cold Catford winter’s evening is echoed in the set of The Broadway Studio Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Libby Todd’s design offers plenty of acting space. Fight scenes are dangerously physical. Party gatherings colourful and wittily complex. Lovers can meet and part, finally to die in each other’s arms, both occupying a world at once distant though strangely familiar. Asia Osborne’s Romeo and Juliet invites comparison with twenty-first century London. It might not match the ethnic diversity of its inner-city home, but it certainly conjures the ennui of middle class youths emulating their more dangerous street-gang cousins. Not quite Anglicized West Side Story, but no less jean and leather jacket-clad all the same.

The Capulets and the Montagues are at odds. Both patriarchs represent parvenu entrepreneurs eager to monopolize their assets. For Lord Capulet, this entails the commodification of his daughter, Juliet, a fourteen-year-old innocent. Juliet must be married. The most wealthy and well-bred suitor will guarantee Capulet and his wife’s social status. This is about money, rank and prestige. The right match, and the Capulet family will outdo their Montague rivals. Only the virgin’s marital-bed blood need be shed, though her heart is destined forever to be broken.

A problem. Juliet meets Romeo. Romeo meets Juliet. Passion is ignited with the touch of hands. This same passion reflects the youthful impulsiveness of a young man who falls as readily in and out of love, as he does burst into tears when circumstances place insurmountable obstacles in his path. Death, as we know, will only ensue. Death and love are ever present bedfellows.

So commonplace a drama has Romeo and Juliet become, beloved by UK school curricula as it is by generations of incurable romantics, that there seems little hope of discovering anything new, anything more dangerous or sensual about the play. Little hope maybe, but when the star-crossed lovers are played with such commitment and passion by two young actors, Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy explodes with Technicolor clarity.

Rachel Winters is superb as the teenaged Juliet, her vulnerability and innocence transforming before our eyes into the frightening knowingness of youthful desire. Winters captures the blameless essence of Juliet. Torn between duty and love, Winters’s Juliet appears also literally and metaphorically torn to emotional shreds by events outside her control or comprehension. When Juliet expresses her fear of waking from her false death in the family crypt, Winters describes these horrific imaginings with visceral intensity. The moment of self-inflicted mortal wounding, so often inviting the disbelief of an audience, in Winters’s trembling hands becomes an instance of painful release from life’s immature cares and woes. Memorable. Complete. A wonderful Juliet.

Juliet’s role relies, of course, on the strength of her lover’s performance. Karl Brown as Romeo does not disappoint. Brown gives a testosterone powered Romeo who teeters at that liminal stage between boyhood and manhood. With a Shakespearean delivery as poised and precise as his loving counterpart’s, Brown injects a reality into Romeo’s love and lust that complements and explains the response of his teenage bride. There is a bravado in Brown’s Romeo, as well as an innocence all of its own. Together, Winters and Brown make a devastating combination. For their performances alone, this is a Romeo and Juliet not to be missed.

There are other equally fine portrayals in the play, with only a few weaker moments of characterization that cannot detract from its overall enjoyment. Best by far is Sophie Doherty’s Nurse. This Nurse is a busybody, accused of being a bawd, a talkative, easily bribed, annoyingly verbose matron whose reminiscences drone around the Capulet household. Her go-betweening leads to the sorry mismatch. Doherty’s delivery is droll and coldly, bitterly funny, her west country accent betraying her social standing as a rural ‘other’ in this decidedly corrupt and corrupting urban world.

Likewise, Josh Rochford’s Friar represents the real world of Christian inner-city mission work. The Friar seems determined to offer safe haven from the gang culture on the streets. His care for Romeo is pure and pastoral in its loving paternalism. The Friar’s deeds, although well-meaning, are no less destructive than the Nurse’s. Rochford’s portrayal of pain and self-realization as the Friar sees youngsters dead before him is moving and convincing.

Asia Osborne has directed a slick and sure production that benefits from two remarkable young actors in the title roles. The passionate love that Romeo and Juliet are meant to portray, so often lost in our more cynical times, is gloriously rekindled by Winters and Brown. There is fire and passion in this Romeo and Juliet. Sit close and feel the heat from its flames as South London’s bitter chill bites outside.

Permanent link to full entry 03:26:23 am. Categories: Stage Performances  

Testing the “Academic Review Kit”: An Answer to Alan Armstrong. Review of Northern Broadsides’ Romeo and Juliet, at The Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames, April 22-26, 2008

Review Author: Peter Smith [mail]
Production: Romeo and Juliet (2008, Northern Broadsides, UK)
Review date: 30 June, 2008

St Serendipity must be the patron saint of theatre reviewers. As I travelled back on the tube last night wondering how to sound positive about yet another indifferent production of Romeo and Juliet, I took out my newly received copy of Shakespeare Bulletin: essential reading matter for bored commuters everywhere. As if by magic, it fell open at Alan Armstrong’s wittily acerbic “Romeo and Juliet Academic Theatre Review Kit” (SB, 26.1 (2008), pp. 109-24) in which he devises and lists, as a series of tick-boxes, the most conspicuous features of various productions so that the contemporary reviewer has only to proceed through the multiple choice of his Identikit template to produce a coherent review of the latest version. Armstrong’s case, though irreverent, is not without some assiduously gathered ammunition since, as he states, he collected and analysed no fewer than “111 reviews of 73 productions of Romeo and Juliet, stretching back to 1987” (p. 118). As the most frequently cited contributor (I certainly had no idea that I had reviewed the play that many times which makes me worry about how many productions I have sat through when not writing it up), I feel especially entitled to engage with Armstrong’s article.

While in no way dismissive of what it is we do as theatre reviewers (and how could he be since Armstrong himself is one of our most prolific and experienced colleagues?), his Structuralist recipe of production features (reminiscent of Vladimir Propp’s The Morphology of the Folktale (1928)) reveals not only how conventionalised and unexciting academic theatre reviewing has become, subject as it is to the “reductive pressure of the traditional review format” (p. 119) but, concomitantly, how conventionalised and unexciting productions of Romeo and Juliet have become. The Nurse, for instance, in Armstrong’s scheme, can be “young and bawdy”; “old and funny”; or “brave and maternal”. Last night she was “young and bawdy”. Costumes can be “colour-coded: shades of red for Capulets and blue for Montagues.” Actually, the Capulets were dressed in green but Armstrong is spot on about the blue Montagues. The ending of the play might involve Capulet and Montague in “each other’s arms, showing some hope for the future.” Spot on again. When Armstrong is able to write a review of a play in absentia or, even more strangely, write a review in advance of seeing a production, there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon.

While Armstrong could have chosen any one of a number of commonly performed plays around which to build his theatre reviewer’s kit, his choice of Romeo is especially apt to illustrate the sheer tiredness of contemporary performance styles. As his checklist demonstrates, productions of this play over the last twenty years have produced little distinctive or noteworthy. In fact there is an unspoken consensus among seasoned theatre-goers that, though not as straightforwardly tedious as As You Like It, this is the Shakespeare play which is most difficult to bring off. Probably, as Armstrong notes, “if you’re young enough to look the part [of Juliet and, we might add, Romeo], you haven’t got the experience or technique [to play it effectively]” (p. 112). Benedict Fogarty and Sarah Ridgeway who played the eponymous couple were both making their professional stage debut which certainly did not help. There was very little in the way of youthful excitement, naivety or – dare I say it – love, and the double suicide was nothing more than accomplished amateur dramatics, the distinctive characteristic of which is the satisfied declamation of a more-or-less accurate script which is short on vocal modulation as well as non-verbal reactions to other characters on-stage. The casting of the beefy Peter Toon as Mercutio meant that the character’s usually urbane and frequently fey qualities were missing here. His stance and shaven head gave him the appearance of a nightclub bouncer rather than Romeo’s homoerotic partner. Barrie Rutter, the director, played Capulet and a peculiarly over-emphasised Prologue, enunciating as he might if visiting an elderly relative in an old folks’ home. Sue McCormick’s Nurse was the personification of domestic comfort, clutching the tiny Juliet to her overwhelming bosom. The contrast with Lisa Howard’s slim and angular Lady Capulet was clear.

Broadsides pride themselves on minimal staging, rough and ready properties and costume, and the kind of transferable design necessitated by touring (this production is visiting a dozen venues across England). Even so, there were some peculiar decisions. Juliet’s balcony was a metal platform on stilts and accessed by a fire-escape set of stairs. But the Rose Theatre boasts a double-level balcony that runs round its upstage wall so this seemed redundant. Most conspicuous and bewildering was the use of a large square dais with two steps running round it much like the base of a cenotaph. The action took place on it, half on it (one character would address another who stood on the stage floor and was thus elevated above him) and off it. There seemed to be absolutely no logic as to when it was used or not. In likelihood its major role was as a sounding board for the clog dance jig (a company trademark) of the Capulet ball but for the rest of the time it was simply awkward. The ball was accompanied by a live band: trumpet, guitar, double bass, banjo and trombone, and composer, Conrad Nelson, provided here and throughout a lively score. The use of handbells accompanying the entry of Paris was particularly effective especially in their swift transition from triumph to mournfulness as the “dead” Juliet was discovered. Again, though the stage fights needed further work (the killing of Mercutio was technically feeble), the vigorous drumming accompaniment was dangerous and aggressive.

In conclusion I should say a few words about the new Rose Theatre. Armstrong’s “Review Kit” notes that too little attention is paid to audiences. In the Rose, the audience is ineluctable since they stretch out on cushions at the foot of the stage. While the rear of the auditorium at ground level and upper levels is seated in the conventional way, the “pit” is a bare floor and offers space for audience members to prostrate themselves and look up at the stage. In its mixture of a conventional auditorium and a cut-down version of the Globe’s yard, it is the worst of both worlds. The lolling supine groundlings looked inert (and indeed several of the younger audience members were asleep throughout) which was distracting enough for those seated behind them but did little to encourage energised performances from the company. The theatre architecture was uninspiring. The low stage, conventionally shaped, is flanked upstage by six cement pillars and the predominant material is a light coloured wood. The whole thing has the effect of a civic centre or town hall which has been adapted for the local amateur dramatics club. In such dull surroundings and with such a lacklustre show, thank God for Armstrong’s review kit.

Permanent link to full entry 11:33:32 am. Categories: Stage Performances  


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