Every few years, the Manitoba Theatre Centre performs a version or adaptation of one William Shakespeare’s plays. Richard the Third was performed in 2003, set in the American invasion of Iraq, and most people remember Keanu Reeves coming to our great city to play the role of Hamlet in the mid-90s.
Right now, until Dec. 17, the story of star-crossed lovers will be taking the main stage at MTC, set in modern day Israel.
I want to preface this review with a wholly honest confession: I wanted to like it. I desperately wanted to like it. I am a passionate lover of Shakespeare — both the man and his plays — and I usually enjoy the productions put on by MTC. Unfortunately, Romeo and Juliet was very bad, and there is no nice way around it.
From the very beginning, I knew something was wrong.
The words to the prologue’s very famous introductory sonnet echoed through the theatre. The set was beautiful, I cannot stress enough the skill of the sets construction and the absolute mastery of the lighting choices. The words, however, were stale. As the actors pounded out “Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,” the electricity in the room fizzled out. And things did not get much better from there.
To be fair, however uninspiring the performances were, they did narrate the famous story of Romeo and Juliet. The plot — even when read in the bare-bones book format — can be very entertaining. The first act also featured some laughable moments between Benvolio (Ari Weinberg) and Romeo (Marc Bendavid), and Mercutio (Gareth Potter) emerged as a surprisingly likable character. Juliet’s nurse was also humorous more often than she was awkward.
What was hovering beneath the surface, however, would emerge full force in the second act. I am not sure where my blush turned to its darkest shade of embarrassed red. Romeo, Juliet (Pam Patel) and Lady Capulet (Pragna Desai) expressed sorrow by increasing the volume of their voices. As the fortunes of each character got progressively worse, their voices got louder and louder, until they were howling. My shade of red deepened when Juliet is mistaken for dead the morning of her wedding day to Paris. A bed was pushed out onto the balcony; the nurse is the first to arrive on the scene. Within moments, she is bawling, quite loudly. Lady Capulet ascends the stairs next. Her cries are immediate, the loudest of all. Capulet, Juliet’s father, blusters onto the balcony next; his voice is supposed to shift from anger to sadness, but only the volume of his words change.
All three characters are standing around Juliet’s bed, yelling at the dead child. The final person to climb the staircase is the Friar, who tries to make himself heard over the din, insisting they get the dead body prepared to go into the vault — he was not very sensitive. Watching the scene unfold, there was nothing for one to do but laugh quietly. The grief surrounding Juliet’s supposed death was represented by four voices competing to see who could shout the loudest. The scene concluded when the nurse, Capulet and Lady Capulet all bend down and push the bed back into Juliet’s room (with the light’s still on).
The setting of this play was changed to Israel, and the time frame was set in modern times. With Jewish Montagues and Muslim Capulets, this interpretation promises to be interesting. After making both of these — fairly major — changes to the setting, director (Steven Schipper) chose to keep the old Shakespearian language. This decision has worked in the past — and is one I would generally support — but not in this interpretation.
Because all of the characters are moving across the boards in jeans and tight modern dresses, it was difficult to acclimatize to the very un-modern language. The swords were removed from the fight scenes and replaced with knives and wooden sticks.
After all of this, I could probably have come out of the play satisfied enough to give the performance a positive review. A play, after all, is no easy thing to put together, and respect should often win out over minor criticism. Unfortunately, the most basic thing, the one thing that is mandatory for this particular production to succeed, was missing. There was no chemistry between Romeo and Juliet. Their lines to one another were stale, their grief was loud rather than moving, and their love just wasn’t believable.
When Romeo drank the apothecary’s poison, when Juliet plunged the dagger into her gut, I did not feel the tragedy move within me. I didn’t even feel sadness. I felt tired.
Romeo and Juliet is an inspiring story of two lovers doomed to a desperately tragic ending. The production being performed at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, however, is not up to the task of representing the beauty and the tragedy.