If you’ve been listening to festival-goers at all during this first Spoleto week — or if you’ve read Paul Bowers’ review — you already know that Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare’s Globe theater production that has set up shop in the Dock Street for the entirety of the festival, is outstanding. I’ve talked to lots of people walking between venues and waiting for shows to start — sitting in a theater by yourself has a way of making you chatty — and honestly, every person who’s seen the show used nothing but superlatives when describing it.
So I was really anticipating something great last night, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I arrived early to the theater and wandered around a bit to avoid sitting in those uncomfortable Dock Street chairs. While I was waiting, I took in the set: a deceptively simple wooden scaffolding painted red with some worn gold spots, with only a wooden stool and a clay pitcher as props.
The overall vision for this production, born out of both artistry and practicality, is a throwback to traveling theater troupes of the 1930s, who went from village to village, threw up a tent and a wooden stage, and transformed it into a set through nothing but acting and the addition of a few choice costumes or props. But another important element of these traveling shows, and of course of Shakespeare originally, is energy: we forget sometimes that theater was not always the choice entertainment of the highly cultured. It was for anyone and everyone, including people who’d gladly let the actors know when things were getting boring.
Keeping things moving and interesting, therefore, was high priority, and I’m happy to say that this production takes that element deeply to heart. The show opens with a fast, cacophonous tune played by all the actors on instruments including a saxophone, bassoon, accordion, guitar, and violin, and an all-important cymbal (entrusted to Tom Kanji, who plays Friar Laurence and Benvolio). The song then goes directly into the street brawl between the Montagues and Capulets that literally sets the stage for the rest of the play.
From there, things stay fast-paced and engaging. A wonderful staging decision has several scenes taking place simultaneously, or interlocked, as it were, and the cast infuses Shakespeare’s script with all its original humor (which includes, as Paul mentioned, plenty of dick jokes).
Everyone in the eight-member cast is excellent, but there are a few actors who gave me a different or new understanding of their characters. Among them are Sam Valentine as Romeo and Cassie Layton as Juliet, but I’ll save them for last.
Steffan Donnelly, as Mercutio, is one. He’s been much-lauded for his work in the role, and I can see why. Especially during the epic Queen Mab speech, Donnelly infuses Mercutio with a certain pathos — rather than the bigger-than-life, fantastical talker I’m used to seeing, Donnelly’s Mercutio was a bigger-than-life, fantastical talker with real vulnerability. When Benvolio and Romeo finally tell him to, essentially, shut up, this Mercutio looked wounded and hesitant for just a split second. It was a highly nuanced, blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment that added real dimension to the character.
Another actor who took his character to new places (at least for me) was Steven Elder as Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet. He was strong throughout, but the scene that got to me was the one in which he, who formerly seemed a kind and loving father, tells Juliet that she will either marry Paris or “hang, beg, starve, die in the streets.” Fueled by anger and grief over Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hand, Capulet is transformed into a tyrant who screams at his beloved daughter with such rage that I couldn’t stop the tears from coming. At the end of his fury, he grabs the stool and moves to hit Juliet with it, only to be stopped by the quick reactions of Nurse and Juliet’s mother.
The reason this scene is so important is that not only is it an example of just how good this production is — it also served to remove any lingering doubts I’ve ever had about Juliet’s desperate decision to pretend death in order to escape her forced marriage and be with Romeo. Every other time I’ve read or seen this play, there’s always a part of me that thinks, “You know, there surely was some other, easier way out of this.” Not this time. I believed fully, with Juliet, that she had absolutely no other choice.
Which brings me to Layton’s Juliet and Valentine’s Romeo. These two actors play the couple as the sweet, inexperienced, lovestruck youths that they are, and it’s completely winning. Valentine is so endearing as Romeo, delivering the character’s most beautiful lines — “The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars, /As daylight doth a lamp” — with a lovely combination of innocence and naivete.
Layton, too, understands her character’s youth and gives it full life. When Nurse comes back with the news that Romeo wants to marry her that afternoon, for example, she screams like a girl at a boy band concert.
But as things unravel with Tybalt killing Mercutio, then Romeo killing Tybalt, both Valentine and Layton take their characters to deeper places. Both grow up quickly, and believably, moving from their unabashed joy and excitement at having found one another to an acknowledgment of just how many obstacles are in their path to happiness. Indeed, it seems they both know that even if they do manage to be together, that happiness would be horribly hard-won — yet they can do nothing else. They need each other that much.
Layton is especially heartbreaking in the final scene, when she wakes from her death-like sleep to find a dead Romeo next to her, the vial of poison in his hand. Without hesitation, she picks up the vial and drinks from it, her face a picture of sad determination. It’s the same sad determination that carries her through to her final end.
We are lucky that this show has the most dates of all the Spoleto shows this year, playing practically every day, sometimes twice a day, until the festival closes. Get thee to the phone or Spoleto box office, and get tickets. Then you too can be one of the hundreds of festival-goers raving about this exceptional play.