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Ravi Jain's visionary production of Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet is accessible for blind, low-vision and sighted audiences
R + J by William Shakespeare, adapted by Ravi Jain, Christine Horne and Alex Bulmer (Stratford Festival/WhyNot Theatre). At the Festival Theatre Canopy, Stratford. Runs to September 26. stratfordfestival.ca. Rating: NNN
Accessibility has become one of the most important issues in contemporary theatre. How can you make the art form accessible to as many people as possible?
Why Not Theatre has been devising bold solutions for years, especially in its groundbreaking adaptation of Hamlet – called Prince Hamlet – which not only mixed up the gender of the cast but also, in its 2017 version, told the well-known story through the point of view of a secondary character, Horatio, who narrated the production and was played and signed by Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley.
While some purists might have complained, the result made us experience the overly familiar material in a new way.
Ravi Jain directed that production; and he does it again in R + J, the intriguing adaptation of Romeo And Juliet he’s written with Christine Horne (who played the title role in Prince Hamlet) and Alex Bulmer for the Stratford Festival.
Bulmer, who is blind, plays the Friar, and this production has been reimagined as a memory play in which the Friar relives the tragedy, perhaps wondering how and when he could have changed the outcome.
The main setting is the Friar’s cell, a modest, grubby apartment full of plants and pots. Romeo (Dante Jemmott) feels right at home here, and when the Friar isn’t learning about Romeo’s love for the young Juliet (Eponine Lee), remembered scenes springing to life onstage (thanks to Thomas Ryder Payne’s suggestive sound design and a handy central door on Julie Fox’s clever set), Romeo’s pal Benvolio (Lisa Nasson) is there to fill in the gaps.
For the most part, this works effectively. What’s fascinating is how many allusions there are to sight in the play, from the Friar’s putdown of the fickle Romeo (“Young men’s love then lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes”) to Romeo’s retort to the Friar (“How should [madmen have no ears] when that wise men have no eyes?”) and his statement to Juliet (“He lent me counsel, and I lent him eyes”).
In order to get the running time down to 82 minutes (with no intermission), Jain and co. have had to chop lots of text or suggest it with off-stage dialogue that might not make sense to newcomers. Mercutio’s (Sepehr Reybod) fanciful Queen Mab monologue has unfortunately been cut, robbing the character of some dimension. More importantly, the ongoing war between the Capulets and the Montagues isn’t properly set up, so Juliet’s prophetic “My only love sprung from my only hate” makes little sense.
But there’s no denying the swiftness with which this production moves.
And it’s refreshing to see the main characters played by young actors. The precocious Lee is 14-years-old, the same age that Shakespeare’s Juliet is meant to be; and Jemmott, though in his early 20s, seems much younger. There’s a spontaneous, authentic feel to their interactions, with lovely contemporary touches like having Juliet strum a guitar and sing a song that would definitely not belong in 16th century Verona. While the two actors might not bring out all the poetry in Shakespeare’s words, they always connect to a scene’s emotion.
Jain has rounded the cast with more seasoned actors like Tom Rooney, who plays the Nurse with understated enthusiasm, and Rick Roberts, whose unstable Capulet is seething with toxic masculinity.
One of the most effective parts of Jain’s production comes at the beginning, when, in consideration of blind and low-vision audiences, the cast members introduce themselves, the roles they are playing and memorable costumes they’ll be wearing during the show.
Besides being helpful, this introduction also adds an element of suspense. If only all productions were so thoughtful.