Daniel Briere and Sara Topham star in the Stratford Festival’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
— Photo courtesy The Startford Festival
The summer months signal the onset of the theatre festival season, a crucial time for tourist industries everywhere, as millions flock to watch live performance across the country and around the world. I recently returned from such a trip, though it was connected to my research on the performance of Shakespeare in Canada, which is part of my work in the English Department at Memorial University. For two weeks, I sifted through the archives at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, examining material related to productions from the last decade.
Of course, the archives are not central to most people’s idea of Stratford, theatre is. Over the years, Shakespeare has been a constant in Stratford’s theatres, but he has not exactly dominated every season; this year, four of the festival’s 12 plays are by Shakespeare (“Romeo and Juliet”, “Othello”, “The Merchant of Venice”, and “Measure for Measure”) and one is about teaching his plays (“Taking Shakespeare”).
Scheduling only allowed me to see “Romeo and Juliet,” a production that imports traditions from another Shakespeare festival, the Globe Theatre in London. According to director Tim Carroll, who has worked for more than 10 years at the Globe, this Romeo and Juliet supposedly embodies an “Original Practices” approach to Renaissance theatre. Original Practices can refer to a wide range of performance and rehearsal techniques that are often employed in Globe productions, but the term usually implies an effort to approximate theatrical conditions prevailing in Shakespeare’s era. In “Romeo and Juliet,” this means that the festival theatre’s dark wooden stage is quite bare for the whole performance and that basic white lighting fairly consistently illuminates the stage and the auditorium to mimic the effect of daytime performance under the Globe’s open roof.
Without the complex lighting or elaborate stage decoration that frequently characterize festival theatre productions, the performers themselves have to provide the spectacle. Wearing attractive period costuming, the actors put on a show dancing at the ball where the titular star-crossed lovers first meet. The ensemble opens the action after the interval with a pretty song in Italian. Romeo’s witty and mercurial friend Mercutio (Jonathan Goad) and Juliet’s fiery cousin Tybalt (Tyrone Savage) provide some exciting sword play in their duel, and costumed musicians accompany much of the action on unamplified instruments. Mimicking Globe practice, the whole cast performs a lively post-show dance prior to the curtain call.
The principals deliver competent renderings of what most would expect from stagings of this frequently staged tragedy. Sara Topham’s Juliet is a vivacious young woman deeply in love with the Romeo of Daniel Briere, and Briere is hardly as dismal as some early reviews made him out to be. Kate Henig’s Nurse is an earthy servant, mothering Juliet and blethering ceaselessly to everyone she meets. Nehassaiu deGannes’ Lady Capulet and Scott Wentworth’s Capulet overbear their daughter Juliet and generally overshadow Romeo’s Montague parents (Wayne Best and Gabrielle Jones), with whom they perpetuate the most famous clan feud in Western literature. Yet, apart from Goad’s charismatic Mercutio and Savage’s equally magnetic Tybalt, the actors seem to be doing little more than getting through a competent rendering of what the audience likely expects of them.
It is clear that their director expects them to inject playfulness into the action by importing the Globe tradition of interacting with the audience, shifting in and out of the play’s fictional world. For instance, Tom McCamus’ Friar Laurence, who helps Juliet and Romeo secretly marry against their parents’ wishes, delivers his famous speech on plants directly to the theatregoers. More often, Carroll has his performers work the crowd for comic effect: Skye Brandon’s Benvolio points out to Briere a “mistress that is passing fair” in the auditorium and an illiterate messenger draws laughs when he pleads with the spectators to help him interpret a letter he cannot read.
On the afternoon I saw the production, this strategy got away from the performers. With a theatre dominated by junior high school students who gleefully accepted the invitation to participate in the comic playfulness, the last 20 minutes of the tragic action became a travesty, as whistles, laughter, and applause filled the theatre at the most inappropriate moments. Admittedly, students are notorious for hijacking performances at Stratford, but Carroll does not help matters by choreographing an embarrassing death scene, in which Romeo has to clamber awkwardly over Juliet to kiss what he thinks is her corpse.
This is not to complain that the company traded simplistic comic audience interaction for psychologically complex performances, as many Globe reviewers have fretted in the past. Yet, while it might interest me, academically, to consider the economics behind shipping so many students to a performance and “spoiling” it for those who have spent almost $90 for the expensive seats, it probably does not interest many who spent almost $90. This Romeo and Juliet might get very different reactions before it closes (on Oct. 19) but the performance I saw spoke volumes about the context of staging Shakespeare at Stratford and the attempt to map one festival’s traditions onto another’s.
Fortunately, the festival provides numerous opportunities for those who want to explore their Stratford context differently.
Researchers are extremely well served by the archives’ wonderful staff and by its superb collection of videos, photographs, newspaper clippings, props, costume designs and production scripts.
The archives are open year-round on weekdays from 9-5 for anyone to use free of charge. Furthermore, during the season, the festival offers guided tours of the archives, the company’s costume warehouse, the festival theatre and its gardens.
For the second year in a row, the festival is running its exhibition in a gallery across the street from the Avon Theatre. Curated by archives director Francesca Marini and design consultant Rick Schmidlin, the exhibition displays costumes, props, pictures and video from past productions of the Shakespearean plays being performed this year in order to deepen theatregoers’ appreciation of how the current productions relate to the Festival’s history. The exhibition also hosts some of the festival’s many lectures, debates and symposia, including talks by company actors, designers and Stratford’s artistic director, Antoni Cimolino.
All these undertakings — to say nothing of the dining, shopping and luxury accommodation that Stratford affords — are part of a larger “Stratford experience,” the embodiment of a tourist economy that sometimes overshadows the performance of Shakespeare. For thousands, Shakespeare remains the true heart of this “experience,” but the cultural, educational and economic activity that revolves around performance is a reminder that the student usurpation of one matinee staging of Romeo and Juliet is only a very small part of what Stratford represents.
For tickets to all shows, tours, and talks at the Stratford Festival, call 1-800-567-1600 or visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.