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BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's R&J Offers a Unique and Accessible Retelling of a Well Known Tragedy

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R&J Offers an Exploration of Point of View Whilst Finding Ways to make the Audience Experience more Immersive and Accessible to Blind and Low-Vision Patrons

BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's R&J Offers a Unique and Accessible Retelling of a Well Known Tragedy

This season at the Stratford Festival, audiences are experiencing theatre very differently than they have in years past. Due to COVID restrictions, almost all productions are outdoors under a tent and performers and audiences alike are dealing with the elements and outside distractions; Social distancing is in effect during rehearsals, and to some degree, in performances themselves; and no production is longer than 90 minutes so plays have been adapted with that in mind. With audiences in a space where they are already prepared to adapt and experience something new, it is the perfect opportunity for the Festival to look for even more radical ways to change the way an audience experiences theatre - and, more importantly, create space and access for a broader audience to be able to fully enjoy their productions as well. This season's production of R&J, produced in collaboration with WhyNot Theatre, makes it clear that one does not need to experience theatre with all five senses in order to be moved. The audience point of entry to this production is shifted from visual to auditory, allowing for this production to be intended for blind, low vision, and sighted audiences alike. Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET is incredibly familiar to most audiences, but the audience experience becomes something entirely new with R&J - an adaptation by Director Ravi Jain, Assistant Director Christine Horne, and Creative Consultant Alex Bulmer (who also portrays the Friar in the play).

This production at the Festival Theatre Canopy, is the classic story of ROMEO AND JULIET told from the perspective of the Friar after the tragic deaths of the star crossed lovers. Bulmer, who is a blind woman, takes us into the world of the Friar as he is haunted by the events leading up to Romeo and Juliet's untimely deaths-some of which were orchestrated by the Friar himself. Bulmer remains on stage for the entire play, and everything we see and hear represents the Friar's memory or perception of the story of Romeo and Juliet. This is a clever conceit given the time constraints of this production. Memory - particularly the memory of someone who has experienced trauma - is not going to be perfect and is only going to tell a subjective story, so it makes complete sense for this story to jump around and skip over some scenes. Bulmer is captivating as the Friar imagines and remembers the highest highs and the lowest lows of this whirlwind romance.

The titular characters are played by Dante Jemmott and Eponine Lee and both are excellent. I mean this as no disrespect to past portrayers of Romeo and Juliet because Stratford has seen some great performances in its history, but it was so refreshing to have these two characters be played by young actors who looked and sounded like the teenagers they were portraying. The entire story immediately feels more authentic and the audience can instantly relate to their points of view by being transported back to our own youth. Both are heartbreaking as they capture the naiveté of young love and the utter devastation as things unravel. I am so excited to see more from each of them.

The rest of the company is also fantastic. Beck Lloyd transitions between her dual roles of Lady Capulet and Tybalt with astounding ease; Rick Roberts is able to perfectly capture the anguish of Capulet at the loss of his daughter, the always wonderful Tom Rooney is fantastic as the Nurse, Lisa Nasson portrays a slow descent into resignation as she tries to keep the peace as Benvolio, and Sepehr Reybod is a great Mercutio. There is a moment where he sneaks a bottle of liquor out of a mini-fridge at a Capulet house party that just immediately provides a perfect depiction of who the character is.

Although the visuals may not be the main focus of this production, it does not mean that they are ignored. Designer Julie Fox has created a detailed set of the Friar's cottage and garden. It is a lovely, welcoming place that the Friar simply cannot enjoy because he is trapped in the guilt and horror surrounding the young lovers. The unique use of sound in this production, as well as the integrated audio description makes for a unique experience. There are moments in the play where The Friar describes what is happening in a scene (ie "They kiss") and the actors do not actually engage in that stage direction. One reason for this is likely social distancing and COVID precautions, but it also allows the audience to reflect on the idea that every person in a story has a slightly different perspective and version of events.

As part of the integrated audio descriptions for blind and low vision audiences, the actors introduce themselves and their characters at the beginning of the play. They describe what they look like, and what they are wearing - some do this almost in the style of their character (Jemmott waxing poetic in an over-dramatic way by describing the blue of his shirt as being like "the sea nourished with passionate tears" is a very 'Romeo' thing to do, and it still has me chuckling). This introduction is well done and works well to set the scene for all audience members. Another way this show was made accessible to all audience members was by offering a "pre-show podcast" on its website in addition to the virtual program that sighted audience members can review.

What I love most about this production is that it is clear the creative team saw it as an opportunity..not just for accessibility, but to retell a story in a unique way and in turn, make it something completely fresh, new, and challenging. And if that doesn't describe the meaning of "art" I don't know what does.

R&J continues at the Festival Theatre Canopy until September 26th.

Photo Credit: David Hou


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