Can a story be interesting if it starts at the end?
That was the question at the top of my mind as I walked into the Howard Family Stage to watch Bard on the Beach’s production of Romeo and Juliet, planted by a friendly Bard volunteer who had mentioned this little twist in interpretation as we waited outside.
Of course, the answer is usually yes; lots of stories follow this format. But, this was Romeo and Juliet… a Shakespeare classic. Would such a massive structural change work?
As these questions bounced around in my head, a beautiful set greeted me: a detailed rendition of a Verona tomb, a hard stone wall with three doors in the back and a burial slab in the centre, skulls sitting in the corners.
After a short speech from the Bard’s artistic director name?, the lights went out, the actors getting into position. A harsh gasp, Juliet woke up in the centre of the slab, Romeo lying curled up next to her. A stumble around the tomb, a sharp scream as she backed into a body lying under a bloodied shroud. She fell back against the doors, before starting the play’s famous prologue in a clear voice.
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”
The other actors stepped forward, holding skulls. Romeo got up, time winding back as one of the skulls began to speak, launching us into the traditional start of the play.
This is one of the first of many brilliant choices. I’m sure everyone is familiar on some level with the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. It’s cut off after two lines in this production, but that doesn’t matter. Its purpose has been usurped by this first scene at the beginning.
We know how things will end, because we’ve seen it already; a sense of fate already established. In a way, the rest of the play itself is the prologue told in action instead of words as it winds slowly towards the inevitable end.
That’s the beauty of this production—the beauty of inevitability. They never let us forget it: The crypt never disappears. Some small things change — the slab retracts into the ground, railings spring out to transform the main door into a balcony — but it’s still a crypt. The piles of skulls still lie in every scene.
When Juliet woke on her burial slab, she’s wore a simple white dress, one that she never changed out of. Accessories got added, jackets and coats to match the scene, but you could always still see it. A smart choice to minimize costume change time, but, also, a reminder of the end.
The lights and soundscape also added to the sense of inevitability. A blue light occasionally shone on Juliet, singling her out as one alive, the one not quite there. And the use of bell effects also added to the sense of atmosphere. They rang mournfully during scene transitions and whined during scenes of tension.
It was immersive, and utterly captivating, aided in a massive part by the power of the performances. Daniel Fong, who plays Romeo, is handsome, but in a more boyish way than the usual chisel-faced leading men that play Romeo in movies. That lent well to his fantastic portrayal of the exuberant highs and moody lows of this production’s Romeo.
In contrast, Ghazal Azarbad plays her Juliet with maturity. She is still obsessed with Romeo, but her lines are delivered with power and grace.
The rest of the supporting cast was strong as well. A special shoutout to two actors: Sara Vickruck’s Mercutio — as mercurial as necessary, she manages to deliver the multiple long monologues associated with the character without skipping a beat — and Andrew McNee’s Nurse, a callback to the original days of Shakespearean theatre, when the women were played by men. His oration is strong, his lines ringing out clear and easy to hear even with the false falsetto and his humour and timing impeccable.
I could not have asked for a better introduction to Bard on the Beach, and I absolutely, highly recommend giving it a watch before the run’s inevitable end.
Bard on the Beach’s Romeo and Juliet runs until September 24th. Tickets can be found either at their on location box office at Vanier Park, or through their website here.