R + J

William Shakespeare, adapted by Ravi Jain, Christine Horne and Alex Bulmer
Stratford Festival Theatre
Stratford Festival Theatre, Ontario

Eponine Lee and Dante Jemmott Credit: David Hou
Eponine Lee and Tom Rooney Credit: David Hou
Dante Jemmott, Alex Bulmer and Eponine Lee Credit: David Hou

The pandemic has played havoc with all of our lives and also changed the nature of theatrical productions irrevocably.

While some directors and producers waved the white flag of defeat, this has also been a time when the imaginative have worked within the constraints to produce lively new versions of old favourites. That is exactly what director and co-adapter Ravi Jain has achieved in this modern re-think of Romeo and Juliet for Stratford Festival Theatre.

In what sounds like the kind of challenge set by tacky prime-time TV reality shows, he has condensed the drama into a playing time of around 75 minutes and accepted a cast of only eight, acting within the constraints of social distancing wherever possible.

Another rule that may be unwritten but is now inescapable means that the adaptable actors take on roles that are colour and gender-blind, while the figure around whom the drama circles is played by Alex Bulmer, a woman who announces in a kind of modern prologue that she is blind.

Along with designer Julie Fox, Jain along with Christine Horne and Alex Bulmer have created an updated version that takes place entirely within Friar Laurence’s rather elegant, open plan cell and entirely in the mind and fevered memory of the character played by Ms Bulmer.

What follows is a mixture of narration, voice-overs, sounds out of sight and action on the set. As we are informed in the opening, the drama that we witness is all taking place long after the deaths of the main players and harks back to those sad events for which the Friar has still not forgiven himself.

The collaborators have also taken a scalpel to the text, reducing it down to a relatively small number of critical scenes from Shakespeare that are played out most effectively and supplemented by occasional insertions of modern language for the benefit of the Friar and also a live audience enjoying the show under the venue’s Festival Canopy.

As the romance between Eponine Lee playing a Juliet who is convincingly teenaged and Dante Jemmott as Romeo develops at breakneck pace despite the feud that divides their families, much goes on in the background, equally breathlessly. To start with, two wise old souls, played by superb actors Miss Bulmer and Tom Rooney, hilarious as the Nurse, joust with the young folk, while clearly caring desperately about their fortunes.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans swiftly go astray when Beck Lloyd’s brash Tybalt challenges the larky but deadly Mercutio, Sepehr Reybod with fatal consequences that impinge on the burgeoning romance between their kinfolk.

It is fair to say that R + J is not Romeo and Juliet and, at times, can feel like the original delivered in fast-forward mode.

Having accepted the limitations imposed by a government far more wary of the coronavirus pandemic than the one in the UK, Jain and his cast create a very entertaining if highly abbreviated version of Shakespeare’s play that will gently entertain devotees but would also make a perfect introduction for younger folk who have not previously dipped a toe into Stratfordian waters.

Streaming takes place somewhat randomly over 2½ months to late November so it is worth checking dates in advance.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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