Review: R + J at the Stratford Festival.

by Lynn on August 22, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Festival Theatre Canopy at the Stratford Festival, until September 26, 2021.

Written by William Shakespeare

Adapted by Ravi Jain, Christine Horne and Alex Bulmer

Designed by Julie Fox

Lighting by André du Toit

Composer and sound designer, Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Alex Bulmer

Eponine Lee

Dante Jammott

Beck Lloyd

Lisa Nisson

Sepehr Reybod

Rick Roberts

Tom Rooney

This is a re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet with the Friar being the central character as he remembers the events that lead to Romeo and Juliet taking their own lives. Director Ravi Jain always gets me to ponder and question the choices being made, the concept and other aspects of his productions, and the question I asked most often here was “Why”?

NOTE: Director, Ravi Jain questions who has the right to tell the story and why can’t a classic be told from a different point of view. History would suggest that anybody has the right to tell the story and of course a classic can be told from a different point of view.

In his 2019 production of Prince Hamlet we saw the play from the point of view of Horatio. He was played by deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley who signed/acted the performance with great enthusiasm.  Her deafness influenced the production and Horatio’s relationships with the other characters. A story that might be familiar, now took on ‘the unfamiliar’ for a different point of view.

With R + J the central character is Friar Lawrence played by blind actor Alex Bulmer. Her blindness also affects how the production progresses. The production is described as being for those who are sight-impaired, have low vision and sighted audiences. It was fascinating seeing the decisions that were made to adapt the concept of blindness to the play.

The Story. We know the story. Romeo and Juliet see each other at a party and instantly fall in love. Except that their respective families have been feuding for years (the reason for the feud is lost in the mist of time). Juliet’s family wants to marry her off to Paris,  a young man who has money and position. She loves Romeo. The Friar agrees to marry them. There is a fight in the street between Tybolt from the Capulet side and Mercutio from the Montague’s side. Mercutio is killed. Romeo avenges his death by killing Tybalt and as a result is banished to another city. Friar Lawrence sends a letter to Romeo with vital information for him but because there is a plague there that quarantines people, the letter wasn’t delivered. Juliet is to marry Paris but the Friar gives her a potion that will make her seem as if she is dead. It’s all complicated and it ends badly for every single young person in this play. The adults, who are mainly responsible, get to live another day and continue to be idiots, you don’t get the sense they have much sense. The Friar relives his many memories of the events that lead to R + J’s demise.

The Production. In keeping with the idea that this is for sight-impaired and low-vision audiences, we are told the cast is entering the acting space and forming a straight line across the stage. In turn each actor steps forward, introduces themselves, describes themselves and introduces the character they will play. Rick Roberts who plays Capulet describes himself: grey hair, tall, and his character Capulet: very assured and looks casual but worked for hours to get the look. (Capulet is a symphony in beige shirt, pants, tanned loafers, no socks—the sign of a very confident man. I’m always impressed with a person who wears expensive shoes and no socks). When he is finished with his introduction, Rick Roberts steps back into line.

This follows for the whole cast except for Alex Bulmer as the Friar. When it’s Alex Bulmer’s turn to be introduced, the cast (except for Bulmer) steps back one step thus presenting Bulmer on her own. I loved the care here in accommodating Bulmer’s blindness. Rather than expect Bulmer to step forward as the others, without an anchoring marker to help guide her, they took care and just moved back one step so she could introduce herself and the Friar. (I assume, rightly or wrongly, this was Ravi Jain’s director’s decision. In any case, I loved the care). The cast is a mix of ethnicities, genders and ages.    

The production is set in modern times and the place is the Friar’s apartment (cell). Julie Fox has created a set full of flowers, plants and herbs (for the Friar’s experiments in potions), an old-fashioned refrigerator is upstage, a single bed is stage left, a table and chair are centre.  The costumes for the characters, except the humble Friar, are contemporary, hip, bold.

Because the play is cut considerably recordings of speeches take the place of actual performances. We hear a recorded speech at the beginning of the taunting of one family member against a member of the rival family: “Do you bite your thumb at me, Sir?” The quality of the recording is rather murky, and one would need to know the play to realize that is the set up for the beginning of the play and the establishment of the feud.

The Friar (Alex Bulmer) is on stage for the whole of the production, as witness and person remembering the events. I appreciate how Bulmer negotiated her way around the stage using parts of the set as markers. She rose from her chair, felt her way along the arm to the back of the chair and then a reach out to the ledge at the back of the stage and got her to feel her way along the back. She drank from a cup on the table, stirring whatever it was she was drinking, living/being naturally in that blind world. Occasionally she took the arm of another character and was led to her bed etc.

The interesting thing about having the Friar as the focus, remembering various events for which he now feels responsible,  is that the Friar wasn’t actually at many of the events he is ‘remembering.’ Ravi Jain solves this conundrum by having Benvolio telling the Friar of an incident. So in fact the Friar is recalling the conversations he has been told.  

The other characters were introduced in quick succession: the commanding, imperious Capulet (Rick Roberts), his stylish, cool wife, Lady Capulet (Beck Lloyd), the Nurse (Tom Rooney) a loving but silly woman, the bubbly, sweet Juliet (Eponine Lee), the always love-sick Romeo (Dante Jemmott), his two impetuous friends: Mercutio (Sepehr Reybod) and Benvolio (Lisa Nasson), and their sworn enemy, the always combative and compelling Tybalt (Beck Lloyd).

Because of COVID the story is kept to 1 hour and 30 minutes and is cut to its bare bones—R + J now seems like initials cut into a tree to sum up a relationship. Social distancing is evident in the staging. Except when the Friar takes a character’s arm there is no touching, certainly no kissing or hugging. Therefore, any sense of a passionate love between Romeo and Juliet is chaste.

However, there is the ‘ick’ factor that can’t be ignored. In Shakespeare’s day and the play, Juliet was two weeks shy of her 14th birthday. Her parents wanted her to marry Paris who had money and position. Lady Capulet emphasized she was not only married but a mother by the time she was Juliet’s age. All well and good. But this play is set in the modern day. Eponine Lee who plays Juliet is actually 14-years-old. Dante Jemmott as Romeo is not a teenager, he’s in his early 20s. Such a relationship between a young teen and a man in his early twenties is, well, rather, “icky” “creepy” if you want to be literary. We are also informed by our raging world. On my way to see this production I was listening to the horrifying news in Afghanistan. An Afghan woman reported that the Taliban would strip women of any rights they had. No education, work, presence. They would be covered and locked away. And she said we could expect to hear of forced marriages of girls as young as 12-years-old. Ick.

How does casting a 14-year-old to play a part as complex as Juliet inform the play? I have enjoyed seeing Ms Lee’s talents grow over the years but an actual 14-year-old playing Juliet? And the same with a 21-year-old university grad playing Romeo? Hmmm my eyebrows are knitting.

I’m sight-impaired. I was intrigued to know how this production would be helpful to me in presenting the play in a different way. I found it was not. Too often characters were placed to block my seeing them properly. Tybalt was introduced leaning against a wall, challenging members of the Montague family. The problem is that I couldn’t see him because another character was placed downstage, blocking my view of Tybalt.

Similarly, when Capulet enters the stage to insist Juliet marry Paris, he is upstage and downstage right in front of him is Lady Capulet. She stands in front of a bench. Does Ravi Jain have her sit during that scene so that I and others in that ‘view’ can see Capulet? No. Lady Capulet blocks him for his whole scene. Was this deliberate? Why?

Capulet really only has two scenes in this production. We get a sense of the bully he is when he begins to yell at Juliet that she will marry Paris. But then Ravi Jain has a thunder storm rumbling in the distance that gets louder as Capulet does, and then the sound of rain pelting down gets even louder and anything Capulet is saying is drowned out by the ear-splitting rain and thunder. Why would you negate a character’s speech with a sound effect? Why would you do that to an actor?

In Shakespeare’s play Romeo first sees Juliet at a party that he is crashing, at her house and it’s love at first sight. Not in Ravi Jain’s concept. Juliet hurries on from the stage left wing and goes centre stage with a microphone to sing a song at the party. Romeo comes in from the same wing a bit after her and hears her singing first and is smitten before he sees her. I guess this continues on the theme of love is blind, except the true meaning of “love is blind” is that love is blind to any fault or imperfections. Changing the focus of the scene from love at first sight to love at first hearing just doesn’t ring true.

Comment. I appreciate that Ravi Jain always has provocative ideas in his productions. He makes me look hard and think accordingly about why he made the choices he did. But I found his production of R + J disappointing and unconvincing. It’s a concept in search of a play.

The Stratford Festival in collaboration with Why Not Theatre presents:

Runs until: September 26, 2021.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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1 Sookie September 21, 2021 at 10:28 am

Hi Lynn. Thanks for the review. I just have to say that the storm playing louder and louder until it drowned out than Capulet’s voice was my favourite moment from the show! I thought it brilliantly depicted his intensifying rage, and how after a while it was all just noise to Juliet. The scene will stay with me for a while.