Review: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ hits High Park with energy and style Special

Posted Jul 15, 2018 by Jeff Cottrill
“Romeo and Juliet” is one of the Shakespeare tragedies that’s hard to make fresh. Even for those who don’t care for the Bard, it’s too familiar, over-referenced and over-parodied, and everything about it now seems like a stale cliché.
Romeo (David Patrick Flemming) borrows love’s light wings to o’erperch a wall or two to visit Ju...
Romeo (David Patrick Flemming) borrows love’s light wings to o’erperch a wall or two to visit Juliet (Rachel Cairns) in Canadian Stage's "Romeo and Juliet".
Dahlia Katz
But this year, Toronto’s annual Shakespeare in High Park has injected an energetic newness into two well-worn staples – Romeo, which opened on Thursday, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Canadian Stage is known for taking bold interpretive risks with Shakespeare tragedies. As sports aficionados begin recovering from World Cup fever, director Frank Cox-O’Connell takes advantage of this year’s soccer hysteria by turning Romeo and Juliet’s feuding families into present-day supporters of rival teams: the Montagues wear blue sports jerseys, the Capulets wear red ones. The greyish structure that makes up Ken MacKenzie’s set resembles the exterior gate of a sports stadium, and the two big street brawls of the play function as fan soccer riots.
The World Cup theme doesn’t sustain itself – it’s virtually forgotten by the end of Act III – but it hardly matters in the end, because the performances and Cox-O’Connell’s confident, well-paced direction are what carry this production.
As for the performances: Rachel Cairns makes for a decidedly original Juliet Capulet, a headstrong, tomboyish teen with the occasional sarcastic edge in her tone. This Juliet is no wilting flower, not a meek medieval child who respects elders without question, but a brash and bored modern girl who sees her hookup with Romeo (David Patrick Flemming) as an escape from the status quo; whether tossing a tennis ball against the wall out of stress or laughing at Romeo while still admiring his boldness, Cairns makes the part real and convincing.
Another cast member who owns the stage is Mac Fyfe, who turns Mercutio into a wild, drunk, bare-chested party animal, acting as the fun-loving loudmouth of the group when he hangs out with Romeo and Benvolio (Peter Fernandes) on the streets after the game. He’s like David Lee Roth with an Elizabethan vocabulary, and his Queen Mab speech is one of this production’s early highlights. Jenny Young also does very well as Juliet’s nurse, playing her as a kind of chatty, suburban mom- or teacher-type who means the best for her ward, but doesn’t know what’s really going on half the time.
I can’t quite make up my mind about Flemming’s Romeo. There are times when his line readings seem a bit stilted, as if he’s either stumbling over the Shakespearean language or trying too hard to make it clear. And yet, in the scene when he hides out in Friar Lawrence’s (Jason Cadieux) cell and laments his banishment – “Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel,” and so on – Flemming nails every line with believable passion and agony. He also demonstrates some nice athletic ability in the famous balcony scene, climbing up the set wall and standing on what appears to be a light fixture; this makes Romeo’s claim, “With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls,” seem like the literal truth.
The balcony scene, like the production itself, avoids most of the potential trappings that might befall a lesser staging; it’s done not with false solemnity, but with humour and a bit of tension. Cox-O’Connell handles the relationship between the star-crossed lovers without sentimentalizing them or looking down at them; you empathize with Romeo and Juliet for their passions and frustrations, while never forgetting that they’re still foolish kids who are moving too fast and recklessly. (Juliet is not even fourteen years old, according to the original text.) They think they’re in love, but you can tell from the way Flemming and Cairns virtually attack each other upon meeting that they’re more horny than anything else. Cadieux nails this theme in his amusing delivery of Lawrence’s line, “Young men’s love then lies / Not truly in their hearts, but in their... [pause] eyes.”
Performances aside, this is a show that moves briskly, not because Canadian Stage has trimmed Shakespeare’s tragedy down to about ninety minutes, but because of its high energy. It opens with a bang, as Fernandes and Jakob Ehman (who plays the hot-headed Tybalt) invite the audience to clap and chant along as if they’re at a soccer match, with sound effects of cheering crowds in the background, and Ehman plays a drum as Fernandes recites the opening prologue. Simon Fon, who choreographed the fight scenes, makes them quick and rough and violent and exciting. (I overheard a child say, “Mom, is the blood real?” at last night’s performance.) Cox-O’Connell doesn’t waste a square foot of stage space in the way he blocks every scene, whether it’s simple two-hander dialogue or a grand ball at the Capulets’ mansion. There are a few minor hiccups now and then; for example, Cairns is leaning her chin on her wrist when Flemming says, “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand!” But such can be fixed during the two-month run.
Again, it’s tough to make an old warhorse like Romeo and Juliet seem fresh. Ditto for Dream and other frequently remounted Shakespeare plays. But with the imagination of Cox-O’Connell and other talented directors, Shakespeare in High Park has the ability to show modern audiences how gripping these stories still can be, more than four hundred years after they were written.
Romeo and Juliet runs at the High Park Amphitheatre in Toronto until September 1.