Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Romeo and Juliet (at Middle Temple Hall, fall 2008)

Tamara Harvey’s simple and beautiful production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet sets the tone with a sung prologue, which has been given an exquisite harmony by composer Claire van Kampen. The lights in the majestic Middle Temple Hall are left shining on the audience, enhancing rather than diminishing a connection with the characters. In such a stunning space, only minimal props and set design are necessary.

Therefore the acting is doubly important. Juliet Rylance is a marvelous Juliet. She bears a wonderfully low voice, emphasizing Juliet’s wit over her young impetuosity.

It is then so disappointing to have a weak Romeo. At first coming across as clever, Santiago Cabrera remains on the same note throughout the entire performance. His excitement about Juliet is at best lukewarm, and his astounding lack of grief at the play’s tragic conclusion is unfathomable. Because of his poor performance, there is no chemistry between him and Rylance.

Thankfully, the supporting is generally excellent. Michael Brown as Paris is more charming than Cabrera’s Romeo. Max Bennet is a lovely, affecting Benvolio, and Will Kemp is suitable as the swaggering, witty Mercutio.

Yolanda Vasquez brings a refreshing sense of humor to the role of Lady Capulet, nurturing a relationship with Ann Mitchell’s excellent, brazenly bawdy nurse. Martin Turner as Capulet is at turns ferocious and touching. The superb acting from these three players creates the most harrowing moments in the show. Their discovery of Juliet’s apparent death is terrifying. Turner is profoundly haunting as he tells his guests that death has deflowered his daughter, and Vasquez and Mitchell are painfully moving.

The cast moves as dancers do, positioning themselves in vast diagonals. Sometimes the continual movement is too much, but the poetic angles and motion are appropriate for such a lyrical play.

Fight scenes are quick and stylized. Brawlers whip knives from holsters. Tybalt and Mercutio’s conflict believably escalates from playful to perilous. Romeo’s violent sword/knife fight with Tybalt is one of the only times Cabrera’s emotion – anger – comes across (though he does not manage to convey it in his voice.)

The gorgeous, all white costumes are certainly unusual. Influenced by a mixture of looks, including contemporary vogue and Elizabethan styles, leather jackets worn by the young men remind one of modern teenage boys. Ifan Meredith as Tybalt is outshone by his flashy gunslinger outfit. The masquerade scene features Montagues dressed in fantastic, silken, black and white Pierrot the clown costumes.

As both the Capulets and Montagues are decked in white, there is no visual differentiation between the two feuding houses. The conflict is thus reduced to a personal scale, focusing on individual relationships rather than the overarching message of peace. Still, there is a sublime moment of reconciliation between Capulet and Montague at Romeo and Juliet’s tomb.

Marred only by a very deficient and unemotional Romeo, this production is simple, understated, and intelligently acted. Harvey’s focus on the story makes this rendition of one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies is ultimately a profoundly moving example of why Shakespeare really is timeless.

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