Reviewing a production of Romeo and Juliet

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A line art drawing of Romeo and Juliet speaking to each other on a yellow background. The costumes for Romeo and Juliet seem to be from around the 1550s.
Where art thy sensibilities, Romeo? b0red via Pixabay, manipulated by lee lim

Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan’s lamentable tragedy

by madelaine moynes-keshen, contributor

When you wish Romeo had an extra bottle of poison to hand out, there is little doubt about a play’s quality.  

Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan’s The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo + Juliet, directed by Kayvon Khoshkam, ran in Saskatoon between July 4 and August 20, 2023. Generally speaking, adaptations must engage in a debate with the official source, offering a unique perspective on, but not altering, the original super objective. There is a technique originating from improv called the “Yes, and,” that is effective as an approach to adaptation.  

In this approach, the director must understand the original structure of the writing (the ‘yes’) and take a stance to agree or disagree with that message (the ‘and’). Achieved through modifications, changes to a play are not uncommon such as runtime, era, costume, or a character’s gender. However, despite best efforts by the cast, the direction from Khoshkam failed to implement a new viewpoint constructively or with any degree of cohesion.  

Changes such as a peeping Tom-like narrator, reallocation of lines, and removal of both critical scenes and speeches are more confusing than creative, as many undermined – if not removed – fundamental points of the play. While one might call the story of Romeo & Juliet a “feel-good tragedy,” the only pleasure gained from this production was that it thankfully came to a timely end.   

The performance starred Mathew Letkeman as the awkward but charming Romeo, and Jen Fong as the childish yet brave Juliet. The actors, while struggling to give full power to the language, provided engaging performances. It should be acknowledged that Kevin Williamson, as Friar Lawrence, was a standout performance. Not only did Williamson recite his lines in perfect cadence, he also added emotional depth to his speeches, particularly in Act 2, scene 3.  

The performance by Williamson rose above the direction and even overcame the poor wardrobe choice that depicted him as a woodland druid rather than a holy man, a particularly peculiar choice given the play occurs in 14th century Italy. Despite some solid performances, the actors had to contend with both unclear timelines and roles. 

The director took inspiration from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie adaption but failed to compensate for the different formats. Playing with timelines may have worked in the film but it offered only confusion in the stage production by creating a disjointed storyline. In the 1996 movie, Luhrmann used a news report in the opening prologue to announce the couple’s affair. In the play, Khoshkam mimics the approach in what looks like a 1930s interrogation scene that is not helped by having the same actor portray both the Prince and Tybalt simultaneously.  

This puzzling choice reappears throughout the production. For instance, in Tybalt’s death scene, Katie Moore portrayed Benvolio, but another actor took on the same role in a later scene. In addition, Bongani Musa portrayed not only Prince Escalus but also Mercutio, again in the same scene, a choice that could have led anyone unfamiliar with the play to think the two characters were one and the same. The staging also did not stick with the 1930s backdrop. In one scene, Juliet in her bedroom hugging a teddy bear resembles a 1980s teen drama, while poorly choreographed fighting scenes depict the actors as swash-buckling English pirates. The choices were inconstant and lacked a point or reason.   

In an adaptation changes are expected, so eliminating Romeo’s parents and Juliet’s father are forgivable, but not all changes made sense or were successful. In the play Juliet’s tender age (thirteen) is symbolized by her constantly hugging a bear, yet in Act 3, scene 1, she tosses away her youth along with the bear and embarks immediately on an implied sex scene. Later, when Juliet is found comatose, her nurse breaks into a poorly timed musical number.  

Other questionable choices included the narrator, a role Shakespeare relegated to the opening and the second act, who appeared in the corner of every scene like a Renaissance Golem. However, the worst change was reserved for Juliet’s death. Aside from the fact that a lack of a crypt made Juliet’s monologue in Act 4, scene 3 regarding her burial beside Tybalt redundant, it also resulted in the fight with, and death of, Count Paris being removed in exchange for Romeo hunting for a shovel to dig up her grave.  

The “grave” itself was awkwardly positioned under a trap door in the middle of the stage. The double suicide between the couple, the climax of the play’s tragedy, is both hard to see and hear. Each actor talked into the trap door rather than to the audience, with one or the other always hidden. The final insult to the scene occurred with the removal of Juliet’s last lines and part of Romeo’s, replaced by the actors pretending to gurgle and flop into the open grave. 

With Romeo and Juliet dead, the dreaded narrator returned to take on the role originally assigned to Prince Escalus. At this moment, the audience should be filled with melancholy as the play’s message of sacrifice is finally realized. The families’ discovery of the bodies is an epiphany that Romeo and Juliet forfeited life for love while the families chose feuding over legacy. The Prince, in the original play, admonishes their unworthy exchange, but none of this is possible as, in this production, the families never show up.  

Rather than complete the famous line, “For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” the narrator instead marched into the audience and screamed an abnormally loud “NO!” Reframing the ending, Khoshkam brought the couple back to life while the families finally appear clothed in white. Despite a tradition of resurrection in previous productions, in this instance it added nothing as there was no context or explanation as to whether Romeo and Juliet were actually dead. 

The loss of the principal revelations emanated from Khoshkam’s lack of recognition of the “yes,” the fundamental objective of the play, and an absence of the “and” commentary to provide any new insights to compensate. Overall, Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan’s The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo + Juliet, while having decent acting, fundamentally mishandled one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies through bad lighting, odd stage directions, unneeded cuts, and a fundamental lack of appreciation for the themes of the play. 

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