Romeo and Juliet’s pilgrimage from ancient Verona to modern-day Jerusalem at the Manitoba Theatre Centre was surprisingly smooth. The retelling of the famous play was directed and performed so that even someone without prior knowledge of the story could easily follow along, despite director Steven Schipper’s decision to keep Shakespeare’s original language.
Romeo and Juliet tells the story of two young people who meet by chance and immediately fall in love. Their families – the Montagues and the Capulets – are feuding, so they marry in secret. Beyond the inevitable in-law problems, complications arise when Romeo’s friend Mercutio is murdered by Juliet’s cousin, a Capulet. Romeo kills him in a rage and is banished from the city, while Juliet’s father promises another man that he can marry her.
As the house lights dimmed in the theatre and music began playing precisely at 8:05 p.m., the audience hushed to gain its first glimpse of the stage.
Set and costume designer Michael Gianfrancesco had the stage dressed in a grey cobblestone garb, with a large balcony above centre stage and a smaller balcony on each side. Although it was a nonissue for the majority of the play, the right balcony was not visible to someone sitting at the end of some rows closer to the front.
The understated set didn’t bring to mind any specific time period and facilitated the action without being distracting. The play also used two video screens, located above the set on stage left and right. They used images such as rooftops or windows to subtly enhance each scene.
The cast as a whole rose to the occasion with the production, which has several high-emotion scenes. Noteworthy was Juliet’s nurse, played by Andrea Davis, who cried real tears when she learned of Tybalt’s death. The monologues – often a challenge because there’s less interaction between characters – were spoken at a good pace and with appropriate emotion; Juliet’s famous “wherefore art thou Romeo” monologue was particularly well-delivered.
The actors all knew their lines, and with the exception of about three minor stutters, spoke perfectly. Even when the actor spoke quickly or with a great deal of feeling, every line was audible, and the copious spitting did not prevent excellent pronunciation.
The modern-day setting was made obvious early in the play, when semi-automatic guns were shot into the air to break up a fight. In the shocked silence that followed, the shells could be heard dropping onto the stage floor.
Gianfrancesco approached his costuming in much the same way. He dressed the characters in modern clothing, with the exception of Friar Laurence, who appeared in a traditional monk’s habit. Romeo, played by Marc Bendavid, first arrived onstage dressed in a polo shirt and dark jeans and wearing a pair of headphones around his neck. Juliet, played by Pam Patel, wore a simple nightdress for much of the play – a choice that presented her as young and vulnerable. This strengthened the contrast of her character when she resolved to love Romeo despite their families’ feud.
Romeo and Juliet will play at MTC until Saturday, Dec. 17, with ticket prices ranging from $27 to $75. The production is two hours and 45 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.