Romeo and Juliet holds a special place in my heart. It was my first introduction to Shakespeare and the first Stratford Festival play I ever saw (2008, dir: Des McAnuff). By no means is it my favourite play by Shakespeare (tie, Comedy of Errors and Othello), nor is the 2008 production my favourite Stratford Festival production (tie, 2009’s West Side Story and 2016’s Macbeth) but for better or worse, Romeo and Juliet is the one play I always make an effort to see.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet tells the story of two young lovers doomed from the start as their families are entrenched in a deep-seated rivalry. The title characters, Romeo Montague (Antoine Yared) and Juliet Capulet (Sara Farb) meet when Romeo and his men sneak into the Capulets’ party in the hope of finding Romeo’s latest infatuation, Rosaline. However, all thoughts of Rosaline disappear from his head the moment he sees Juliet. As young teenagers, emotions fly high and the two fall in love with little concern for their families’ rivalry.
I’ve always been curious to see how each director brings the play to life and Scott Wentworth did not disappoint. Unlike McAnuff who infused his production with a modern setting in 2008, Wentworth used the renaissance as his setting. To create his renaissance backdrop, Wentworth kept the Festival stage surprisingly bare, except for a few candelabras and coffin-like benches, relying heavily on Shakespeare’s words and period costumes to transport the audience back in time.
Wentworth’s production is scored with many interesting choices that work to create a darker tone than most productions of this tragic love story. The most prominent choice is the Chorus (Sarah Dodd) being a woman in mourning followed around by four widows (Miali Buscemi, Krista Leis, Katelyn McCulloch, and Natasha Strilchuk). Making the Chorus women in mourning foreshadows the multiple deaths that occur. The Chorus and widows appeared throughout the play, setting ominous tones for specific scenes. Interestingly, this is the first Stratford production of Romeo and Juliet that includes the Chorus’s opening speech for Act II.
Along with the ominous presence of the Chorus and widows, the play opens with a haunting voice-over of servants fighting as Capulet’s men face off against Montague’s men in the first scene. The voice-over echoed throughout the theatre, bringing the audience into the centre of the fight. Another nod to the darker tone is found in the scene at Capulet’s party where Romeo and his men don half-skull masks to blend in with the masked partygoers. Not only are these masks disturbing, but they also work to foreshadow the deaths that ultimately fall upon Romeo and his closest friends.
The darkest and creepiest scene in the entire production is the Apothecary scene. As Romeo waits to meet with the Apothecary (John Kirkpatrick), cloaked figures slowly creep onto the stage leading the way for the Apothecary. The cloaked figures are revealed to be the slain and bloody Tybalt (Zlatomir Moldovanski), Mercutio (Evan Buliung) and Benvolio (Jamie Mac) who introduce the Apothecary as the ultimate bringer of death. The Apothecary himself is one of the creepiest characters I have seen cross the Festival Stage. Covered in a black cloak with a mask that looks eerily similar to those doctors wore during the plague, he speaks in a voice reserved for horror movie villains.
After seeing how beautifully these dark elements heightened Romeo and Juliet, a play that often falls flat on stage, I realized that Wentworth’s risk to shift focus on the darker and more violent side of this tragic love story paid off. Yared and Farb give strong performances as Romeo and Juliet that balance the high-strung emotions of youth with the confident, albeit brash, decisions of adulthood. Yared’s Romeo gives one of the best tantrums I’ve ever seen and Farb’s Juliet switches from love-struck into shrill in the blink of an eye. It’s no easy feat to play these title characters and paired with Wentworth’s interesting choices, their performances make Romeo and Juliet unforgettable.