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The period of Shakespeare's creative productivity covered the rich years from about 1590 to 1613. During this span the Renaissance style was on the wane, though still much in evidence; the Mannerist style was in full swing; and the Baroque style was in its vigorous infancy. Thus it is that Shakespeare's output reflects all three styles: in the tragedies, for example, Othello is Baroque, Hamlet and King Lear are Mannerist, and Romeo and Juliet is Renaissance.
Among the Renaissance characteristics are balance and symmetry, which Romeo and Juliet has in superabundance. An early member of the canon and only the author's second attempt at tragedy, the play is at times literarily self-conscious and structurally too obvious in its symmetrical balance. Every idea has its complement: love vs. hate, day vs. night, patience vs. impetuosity, chastity vs. bawdry, and so on. Every character has its foil: Romeo and Mercutio, Juliet and Roasline, Benvolio and Tybalt, Friar Laurence and the Nurse. If it is not a supreme achievement, it is still a great play; and let us be thankful we have it.
Events move swiftly and suddenly in this play, almost as fast as those of Macbeth. Over and above this, much can be done to cover up the structural shortcomings by maintaining a rapid and unbroken flow. Much has been done in this regard in the current Stratford production, under the direction of Jack Landau. Landau has wisely allowed only one intermission. And, using a somewhat trimmed text, he has on occasion overlapped the scenes; for instance, the Capulets' ball gets under way before Romeo and his pals on the street outside have finished their say. The resulting production has a running time of two and a half hours. It was inexcusable, however, to omit the prologue speeches, even to accommodate the clock.
The heroine of the play is surely the most captivating one Shakespeare ever created. And every actress wants a crack at the part at some time in her career. The American Shakespeare Festival is lucky to be enjoying the services of Inga Swenson; her Juliet is by far the greatest asset of this production, and, indeed, the finest Juliet I have ever seen.
To be sure, Miss Swenson does not give us precisely the Juliet that the playwright intended: a nymphet not yet quite fourteen years old. But this is a Juliet we shall probably never see, until perhaps someone revives Shakespeare's practice of having his heroines played by young boys. Miss Swenson is, I should guess, twice Juliet's age; yet she gives us a Juliet who is clearly a teenager, and that is in itself a rare achievement. She underscores the impression with occasional youthful bits of business, such as tossing her breviary up in the air and catching it again.
She is a beautiful creature to look at, especially in Dorothy Jeakins' lovely costumes. And she is a beautiful creature to listen to; being an accomplished musician, she is able to capture most of the music as well as the meaning of the lines, a goal that still eludes the other members of the cast. And, when necessary, she can trumpet forth a "Blistered by they tongue For such a wish!" that tingles the spine.
Richard Easton's Romeo is unevenly effective. He has on previous occasions shown great skill with smaller roles, especially comic ones (his Puck last summer was tops). But Romeo marks his first traversal of a long, serious part for the Festival; and there is no reason to expect it to be definitive yet. He clearly has a fine Romeo within him, though. His diction is clear. He has no trouble making Romeo young enough--and young he must be: Romeo matures a little during the play's course, but he never does become a man. At present, however, Easton's Romeo is not enough in love--either with Juliet or with the words he speaks.
Still, the famous Balcony scene is wholly enchanting, both aurally and visually. It is night, of course; and for Romeo and Juliet, as for Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, night is blissful and day abhorrent. "But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" As Juliet turns on her bedroom light, the odylic moment is underlined by some light tracery on a flute. Juliet appears in a white nightgown, sinks on her knees, spreads her elbows on the balcony to support her head, and lets the light catch her soft, blond tresses--all girlishly, but never awkwardly. The rest of the scene is magic. As Easton plays it, he works himself up until he all but shouts, "And thou but love me, let them find me here!" At this instant, like a boy who has just dropped the cookie jar, he fears he may have been overheard and jumps back with a frightened glance over his shoulder--a delightful suggestion of adolescence. When the lovers finally part, their extended hands do not quite touch--a touch, or rather non-touch, that visibly conveys the yearning and unfulfilment of their newly-found rapture.
All the supporting roles represent different attitudes towards love and marriage. Of these the best-drawn are Friar Laurence and the Nurse; but their portrayals, by Hiram Sherman and Aline MacMahon, fall short. Morris Carnovsky as Capulet and Nancy Wickwire as his Lady are both commendable; Capulet's denunciation of Juliet is particularly forceful.
The finest male performance in this production is Jack Bittner's Tybalt. He plays Capulet's war-mongering nephew with brio and brimstone. Though physically very short of stature, Bittner is, by the time he is slain, fully one foot taller. Incidentally, all the swordplay in the production is splendid; arranged by Raymond Saint-Jacques, it is a far cry from the usual mamby-pamby skirmishing.
The biggest disappointment is the Mercutio of William Smithers, who has proven himself a good actor elsewhere. Here he is a total failure; and much of the blame must fall on director Landau. Not for nothing does Mercutio share five letters with Mercury; but there is nothing mercurial about Smithers' performance. Mercutio is an airy, sparkling, zestful, witty chap; Smithers is none of these. Too bad, for the role is so rich that it bids fair to top that of Romeo himself--wherefore Shakespeare had to kill him off on two counts.
To Mercutio did Shakespeare give the celebrated Queen Mab speech, one of the great virtuoso arias in the language. Smithers delivers this faery monologue in a slow, sloppy, slovenly manner, with no heed to what he is saying, when the speech should be, in Mercutio's own words, "as thin of substance as the air."
Both Smithers and Landau should be made to listen to the Queen Mab vocal scherzetto and orchestral scherzo from Berlioz' "dramatic symphony" Romeo and Juliet before Smithers sets foot on the Festival stage again. In fact, no director should essay this play until he has studied all of the Berlioz masterpiece, the only work based on Shakespeare's play that surpasses the original. Significantly, in his Sunday appraisal of this production, the New York Times' Brooks Atkinson was also moved to invoke the Berlioz work. Although he made some inaccurate statements about both Berlioz and his symphony, his basic point was sound: Berlioz understood the play thoroughly and can still teach us much about it. As Atkinson said, for this play Berlioz "would have been the ideal director."
David Hays has designed suitable movable additions to Rouben Ter-Arutunian's flexible basic stage, so that the swiftly changing geographical demands of the text do not inflict between-the-scenes waiting. Tharon Musser's lighting is admirable, particularly the moon-swept night lighting.
David Amram's incidental music is of uneven quality. Highly apt is the background for Romeo's Mantuan soliloquy: an unaccompanied English horn, suggested perhaps by the third act opening of Wagner's Tristan. At the opening performance the balance of the instruments in ensemble playing was awry, but this is easily remedied. George Balanchine's choreography is proper if not exceptional.
In sum, a fairly good production with a superlative Juliet.
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