I just attended the Saturday matinee of The Last of Romeo and Juliet by Talk is Free Theatre at Barrie’s Mady Centre for the Performing Arts.
The salient question on this occasion is the one that often comes up when a production departs from the original text, especially one that’s usually considered indestructible theatrical gold. “With all those changes, does it still work?“
Shakespeare is usually considered fair game for directorial interpretations. I’ve just seen a film of Coriolanus using an almost irreconciliable template of weapons & clothing superimposed on the story of classical Rome. After seeing today’s TIFT show I’m in the mood for Joss Whedon’s modern Much Ado About Nothing. While neither of those films is faithful to the settings of the original you’d never know it from their titles.
TIFT has at least signalled their adventurous approach with the title. No it’s not exactly as Shakespeare wrote it, but a kind of play using the original as our subtext, a text we know so well that you can feel the recognition of classic line after classic line.
I was fortunate to get a head-start on this, by interviewing David Ferry in December. The concept as I understood it was that this time Romeo & Juliet are not the youngsters we know so well. Instead we’re seeing seniors enacting more or less the same story.
But there’s a great deal more to it than that, I realize now. Director Mitchell Cushman wrote program notes that explain it quite clearly:
To me, Romeo and Juliet has always been a play about lack of agency. Amidst all of the brawling love and loving hate, the play gives us two protagonists not in control of their own lives. They know what they want, desperately, but their families, under the presumption of knowing better, are pulling all the strings. In our time, it’s a little hard to connect with the idea of adolescents being so subjugated—in fact in many ways teenagers are today’s most empowered demographic.
So Cushman begins with a critique of the play as written, but also offers the solution:
Instead it is our elderly who often being to lose control of their own lives –especially as they move into long-term care institutions.
We’re in a similar place to Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is to say, a slightly absurdist place. Because we know the story of the play so well, they can invoke the known plot trajectories of Romeo and Juliet, although TIFT avoid the more complete deconstruction one finds in the Stoppard. I can’t comment on certain aspects of the story without giving it all away (and I avoid spoilers at all cost), but it was magical to venture off into other Shakespearean texts. I couldn’t help being reminded of my own fading memory, as though I myself were in such a home, hearing lines that were dim Shakespearean recollections from other plays. This blurring was quite powerful and very beautiful to experience, which is why i won’t spoil it by giving it all away.
There’s another possible rationale that Cushman didn’t mention in his notes. The unspoken frustration one encounters with Romeo and Juliet has to do with the main subtext of the play, namely youth & aging. Has anyone ever seen a Romeo or a Juliet who was even close to the correct age? Juliet is thirteen. Romeo is older, but still young. Imagine the best Juliet and/or Romeo you ever saw–usually much older than the way it was written–and then remember that the actors are even older now. Actors age, even the ones playing Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio, even Friar Lawrence.
What a gift, then, to populate this old folks home with larger-than-life personalities, as though Verona were actually the Performing Arts Lodge (the retirement home for actors & singers). I couldn’t help feeling that maybe the rationale for Cushman & Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak to revisit Romeo & Juliet is to make a kind of showcase for fabulous older talent. As an opera fan I am very happy with set-pieces, so long as they work.
And they did
Who wouldn’t want to see Jennifer Phipps doing the Queen Mab speech? I’ve often been disappointed at readings bemused by the speech’s faery imagery while missing the madness lurking just beneath the surface. Phipps took us deeper and darker than I’ve ever been in this speech, without ever leaving her wheelchair.
Alex Poch-Goldin is an unexpected Capulet, this time Juliet’s son providing for his aging mother. He’s self-effacing, almost invisible for the longest time, until suddenly –with the prospect of marrying his mom off to Paris and stopping the expensive payments for the home—he erupts, one of the most vivid and disturbingly real moments of the adaptation.
Clare Coulter is a princess of cats as Tybalt, wearing a wacky stuffed cat. But her volcanic rages are genuinely scary, and an important underpinning of the genuine dangers in such homes. As Cushman notes in the program, an average of five people a year are murdered in retirement homes.
Sandi Ross’s Nurse is a character unharmed by the adaptation, because of course one can easily imagine nurses in retirement homes. She is the beating heart of the play, larger than life, regularly saying what needs to be said. As one of the last vestiges of the comical parts of the original piece (given the darkness underlying the adaptation) Cushman relies on her to be the comic counter-balance of the work.
And what a gift to see Diana Leblanc as Juliet, a grown-up “gallop apace” to open the second act, and a new look at so many lines that have never felt so new as they did today. We were in the presence of romance, between her and David Ferry, every bit her match as Romeo. In a way he’s at a disadvantage because I think more of his role is deconstructed or altered. In Shakespeare’s play Romeo has many lines before Juliet appears (her lines to Romeo at the party are still among her first), but as the play goes on, Juliet moves to the forefront. Many of Romeo’s early lines are casualties in this adaptation. When we meet Ferry’s Romeo we’re not yet immersed in the Shakespearean world that takes over once the lovers’ eyes meet.
Some aspects of the story in this new framework are easier to accept than others. From time to time the lines scintillate, as the modernized version suddenly resonates, both with the original romance and with the desperate melodrama of this adaptation. There are other times when the adaptation approaches parody, because the grand Shakespearean lines have been pushed into such a silly place. But it’s never boring, and sometimes breath-takingly new.
I found myself staring at the program, not sure I knew who to credit for the script. At times I wondered if this was a collective creation –or would we call it a collective recollection (?), of all those brilliant mature performers—but the program says “Adapted from the words of William Shakespeare and Directed by Mitchell Cushman”. Cushman treads a fine line, ultimately giving us lots of Shakespeare, a fresh new look at the story we know so well.
Talk is Free Theatre’s The Last of Romeo and Juliet plays at the Mady Centre for the Performing Arts in Barrie until January 18th.