Romeo and Juliet

Hailey Gillis and Andrew Chown Credit: David Blue
Hailey Gillis and Andrew Chown
Credit: David Blue

At Bard on the Beach until September 23, 2016

Posted June 11, 2016

Coltish. That’s the best word to describe Hailey Gillis who plays Juliet in Shakespeare’s timeless tale of star-crossed lovers at Bard on the Beach. Gillis is leggy, long in the arms, hands and feet. There are times when she runs around the stage like a young foal in a field of wildflowers, bursting at the seams with youthful excitement. Juliet is not quite fourteen in the play and Gillis finds the body language of young Juliet to perfection: gawky, un-self-consciously and gracelessly draped over her balcony, impulsively throwing herself down on her bed. This physicality is probably more contemporary than was likely in the late 16th century; nevertheless, it’s lovely.

This production, directed by Kim Collier, might have been called Juliet and Romeo as it is definitely Juliet-centred. (The only production of Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen in which Romeo was dominant was the recent Studio 58 one, directed by Anita Rochon. Ironically, Romeo was played by Camille Legg and the lovers were lesbians).

In this Bard production, Andrew Chown’s Romeo, frequently seen bare-chested, is charming once the character gets past pining and drooping over the quickly forgotten Rosalind. The story, however, always feels more Juliet’s than Romeo’s.

It’s easy to focus on the characters and the action on this stripped down set by Pam Johnson: two moveable, grey, concrete or metal-looking bunkers. No sun-drenched streets, no trailing vines or explosions of flowers, no Italianate columns. Initially, no balcony. But with lighting by Gerald King and sound design by Brian Linds, we’re transported to “fair Verona” where the play is set.

In everything she does, director Collier brings a strong, assured vision. Casting Ben Elliott and Andrew McNee – two terrific actors with a flair for comedy – as Benvolio and Mercutio, lifts the play significantly early on. They are a couple of ‘dudes’, a pair of boys-will-be-boys who hang out together, in one case stabbing their empty beer cans with their swords. McNee absolutely nails the Queen Mab speech, establishing Mercutio as a man more in love with words than women. There is, additionally, more than a whiff of homoeroticism between Mercutio and Benvolio: an interesting choice.

Ben Elliott and Andrew McNee Credit: David Blue
Ben Elliott and Andrew McNee
Credit: David Blue

Another significant departure from traditional casting is Jennifer Lines as the nurse. This Nurse is not old, not past her best before date and definitely not coarsely bawdy. She’s effervescent, even girlish, a little sexy and more girlfriend than nursemaid to this Juliet. With Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother (Dawn Petten) such a cold fish, the relationship between Juliet and her nurse is all this poor youngster has to hang onto when things begin to unwind.

The Friar is often played as a bit of a doofus, a silly old cleric. But give the role to Scott Bellis and watch it grow. “These violent delights have violent ends/And in their triumph die, like fire and powder/Which, as they kiss, consume” becomes truly portentous not simply the ramblings of a bumbling old fellow with a bunch of posies, herbs and poisons.

Costumes by Nancy Bryant are, like this production as a whole, mixed: a little bit contemporary (a hoodie, a suit jacket here and there, a tulle and rose-embellished party dress) and a little bit period (capes, doublets and regal gowns).

Jennifer Lines and Hailey Gillis Credit: David Blue
Jennifer Lines and Hailey Gillis
Credit: David Blue

This is an accessible, handsome production with some very interesting directorial choices made by Collier, one of Canada’s most exciting directors. The production may not move you – it’s still a sorry play about puppy love, after all – but it’s admirable. Romeo and Juliet is, as has often been remarked, a comedy that goes terribly wrong. The final tableau, beautifully staged and lit, and underscored by swelling music, was enough to get most of the opening night audience on its feet. You’d have to be made of stone to remain untouched as the curtain falls.