Our second day in Ireland (Wednesday, 4/22), my parents and I parted ways: They caught the bus to the Guinness Storehouse, while I patronized the Gate Theatre in Dublin. The Irish playhouse promised me Shakespeare; how could I resist?
Romeo and Juliet has claimed my affection since my freshman year in high school, when I convinced my classmates to focus our group analysis project on Romeo’s Myers-Briggs personality type–but I had never seen a professional production until now.
The production presented the original script with modern costuming and a minimalist set, which actually served the play well. For one thing, it probably appealed to their Wednesday matinee audience, which consisted almost entirely of high school students. More importantly, it helped convey the excitement and boisterous rowdiness of scenes like the Capulet party where Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time. Imagine disco lights, animal masks, and teenage boys. Break to a sappy love song when Juliet and Romeo spot each other for the first time. Characters dash on and off the stage throughout the scene, acting out their fragmented interests and petty dramas, including the delightful male ensemble: A combination of the servants, Romeo’s friends–and the stage crew. You might say they broke the fourth wall while moving chairs on and off stage for scene changes. It was an unusual choice, but it worked: I have never enjoyed Shakespeare extras so much.
Highlights: Many scenes granted Shakespeare’s writing all the due it deserves, including the revelation of Mercutio’s death (his stab wound is initially hidden from the audience and his friends until he turns to reveal the bloodstain…which rapidly thickens into a stream, to the horror of everyone involved.) Props like fluorescent glowsticks effortlessly bridged the gap between the modern setting and lines like, ‘I’ll bear a torch.’ Lady Capulet’s actress drew attention to the necessary youthfulness of someone who bore the now thirteen-year-old Juliet while not much older herself. Romeo’s costuming emphasized some clever wordplay: He arrives at the Capulet masquerade dressed as a black bird with a plague doctor’s mask, and later suggests that ‘love’s wings’ carried him into the Capulet garden. Friar Lawrence and Romeo’s interaction painted their father-son relationship with perfection. Finally, the play impressed with its exquisitely precise blocking, down to the exact position Juliet adopts after falling into a deathlike sleep–which allows her nurse to discover her deathlike pallor in a dramatic and convincing fashion.
Lowlights: Juliet enters as an insolent teenager, a dubious interpretation of her meek and obedient opening lines. After the intermission, the nurse suffers an inexplicable shift in temper towards Juliet, treating her with anger and frustration long before Juliet declares them “twain.” Mercutio’s wild “Queen Mab” speech fell somewhat flat, while Lady Capulet overacted her lust for Tybalt and her fear of her husband. Romeo’s violent death throes inspired cringing, not sympathy. Worst of all, the play cuts the reconciliation between the two families and replaces it with divisive scenes of grief, before ending on a flashback to Romeo and Juliet’s balcony dialogue–a move so unexpected that the audience began clapping too early.
Overall, the show suffered from want of subtlety. Is there something beyond familial affection between Lady Capulet and Tybalt? Does Lord Capulet suffer from an out-of-control temper that cows his wife? Perhaps. These themes warrant exploration, but the actors’ interpretation left no room for imagination by the end of the play. Despite that, I enjoyed the production: Gate Theater’s modern interpretation breathed new life into a thoroughly familiar tragedy with its vivid setting and carefully constructed performance.