I’ll just put this out there right up front: I’d never seen a good, live production of Romeo and Juliet. (Well, okay, one caveat: I saw it at OSF in I think 2007? And I remember that I liked the production, but I genuinely can’t remember a thing about it except the costumes. I also saw an hour-long, four person version, but that’s not quite the same. If I’ve seen other good ones, I can’t remember them.) I absolutely adore the play, but I forget that fact sometimes because it is being constantly misinterpreted and misrepresented.
So I’m pretty thrilled to have finally seen a truly lovely, moving Romeo and Juliet.
All the previous productions have had myriad problems, but the most utterly lethal one, every time, has been the Juliet. Time after time, directors seem to forget that Juliet is required to carry essentially the entirety of act four and most of act five by herself, and cast wispy, pretty actresses who can float around a balcony but are incapable of presenting (and, I suspect, even recognizing) Juliet’s intelligence and the steely resolve which drives her through the latter half of the play.
Basically what I’m saying is, thank God for Cassie Layton. Her artlessly youthful, awkward, practical Juliet anchors the play, and Layton carries Juliet from giddy confusion at her first encounter with Romeo (she doesn’t quite know what’s going on, but she knows she like it) through a subtle, gradual maturation to laughingly, and convincingly declaring to the Friar, “Talk not of fear.” Her eroding innocence and complete self-assurance make it impossible to dismiss her suicide as stupid youthful impulsiveness: both she and Samuel Valentine’s Romeo carry so entirely the weight of their circumstances it is wholly possible to believe that they are left with no other choice. Romeo’s lament that he has “stain’d the childhood of our joy with blood” rang particularly strikingly– they begin as innocents, but they do not end that way.
Co-directors Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare overlap and intercut scenes, drawing extra attention to the language of fate and foreboding that pervades the play, and highlighting the repetitions of language and imagery across successive scenes. The stylized opening chorus and the very well-carried final speeches by the parents and the friar (usually interminable if they aren’t cut, here feeling vital and weighty) remind us that this is in fact a civic tragedy: the original sin that must be punished is the intolerance and hate-mongering of the parents, not their children’s daring to love each other.
Valentine (that’s his name, I swear) imbues Romeo’s self-centered dreaminess with an endearing sweetness, and a willingness to love that’s not just limited to Juliet and the unseen Rosaline: he’s warm and affectionate with his friends and mentors (Tom Kanji as Benvolio and the Friar and Steffan Donnelly as Mercutio) and seems genuinely open to reconciling with Tybalt, though the latter (Matt Doherty) will have none of it. This Romeo’s earnest efforts to avoid violence, both with Tybalt and Paris, added an additional dimension to his near-catatonic grief at the news of his banishment: he mourns the thought of losing Juliet, certainly, but that crazed edge to his torment certainly seems to be equally borne of guilt and horror at what he has done.
The balcony scene is suffused with genuine joy and wonder, and Dromgoole and Hoare are unafraid not only to allow the first three acts to be lighthearted, but don’t try to erase the comic moments written even into the latest scenes. Kanji and Donnelly’s drunken wanderings as Benvolio and Mercutio are very charming, and Lord Capulet (Steven Elder) emerges as surprisingly funny. He is flanked by Hannah McPake’s steely Lady Capulet and Sarah Higgins’s completely delightful Nurse, both of whom prove cannier than their sex and station allow them to openly appear. They do what Juliet cannot: push aside their own desires, lower their eyes, and surrender, after some resistance, to Lord Capulet’s demands. No wonder he is so willing to believe in Juliet’s sudden reformation.
Atmospheric music contributes to the stylized tone, and the acts are bookended with a relatively lighthearted musical number featuring the company as the band, plus a very charming jig that frankly comes as a relief after the devastating final scene in the Capulet tomb. Dromgoole, as ever, knows exactly how to tread the line between a contemporary audience’s naturalistic expectations and the presentational, theatrical nature of Shakespeare’s actual writing. Elevating the material in this way, rather than making it stagey and artificial, grants permission to believe in everything: of course Romeo and Juliet are perfect for each other, of course it’s true love, it’s right there in the poetry.