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BWW Reviews: Stratford's ROMEO AND JULIET Goes Back to Basics

The Stratford FestiVal May have dropped 'Shakespeare' from its name this year, but the Bard still kicked off the 61st season as a new 'original principles' version of Romeo and Juliet opened last night.

The classic tale of star crossed lovers has been stripped down and re-envisioned as it would have been presented when the Bard was still alive. Director Tim Carroll has had much success with this style at The Globe in London, where people have embraced the opportunity to see a Shakespearean production done in a more classic way.

The concept is simple - 'original principles' attempts to present the production as close to the style of Elizabethan theatre as they can. For the audience, this translates into a minimalistic set, Elizabethan style costumes, un-mic'd actors and no electric lights. In fact, the lighting at The Festival Theatre is designed to reflect the time of day, in order to make the audience feel as though they are watching the production outside. While I'm sure this may be spectacular when done right, it falls flat in this particular production.

There are numerous difficulties when it comes to presenting Shakespeare, and in particular a show as well known as Romeo and Juliet. You need the right balance of comedy and tragedy, and you require actors who are capable of grabbing (and keeping) the attention of the audience. With so many versions of the story readily accessible (the most recent being the critically acclaimed Baz Luhrmann film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) one can understand why a director might feel the need to do something drastically different to stand apart. The 'original principles' may have been Carroll's attempt at making his unique mark on the show, but I couldn't help but wish it had a little more pizzazz.

The show begins in a promising manner, with a hilarious Mike Nadajewski addressing the audience and informing them of the style in which the show will be presented. We are encouraged to turn off 'any devices that have not year been invented' and avoid 'the painting of pictures'. Unfortunately after this initial exchange, the novelty quickly wears off.

As Romeo, Daniel Briere misses the mark, coming across as almost happy in the face of tragedy and lacking the presence necessary to make us truly care for the character. Sara Topham fares much better as Juliet, working hard to engage the audience in the lover's tragic tale.

There are a number of strong supporting players who work hard to overcome the problematic story-telling approach. I particularly enjoyed Tyrone Savage's Tybalt, Jonathan Goad's Mercutio and Tom McCamus's Friar Lawrence. They bring much needed life to the characters and have some of the most engaging scenes in the production.

Kate Hennig is also strong as Juliet's Nurse, however her role is often reduced to over the top comedy instead of a more nuanced approach. In fact, it was hard to shake the feeling that the play was more comedic than it should be, and I felt myself longing for some semblance of the true Shakespearean tragedy by the end of the evening.

As an introduction to Shakespeare, this could work well - but those expecting a more polished production or engaging version would do better to look elsewhere. I suspect history students might enjoy experiencing the 'original principles' concept, but true theatre lovers are likely to be left wanting.

In the end, Romeo and Juliet is a story about first love that has an untimely and tragic end. If one does not feel that all The Players are devastated by the time the final lines are being delivered, something has been missed. In this production, I believe that the heart and soul of the piece has been lost amidst the ambition of the directorial choices. If you want to experience Romeo and Juliet, you might be better off sticking with DiCaprio and Danes.

When and Where?

Romeo and Juliet

The Stratford Festival - Festival Theatre

On now until Oct 9th, 2013

For full performance schedule and ticket information, visit the website at or call 1.800.567.1600.

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