Watching theatre is never about checking a play off my list of plays I haven’t seen. As with books and movies, every time I rewatch or reread something, its meaning changes for me. I see things I never saw before. With live theatre, every time a play is staged, a different director takes a different approach with a different group of actors in a different space. That’s why we continue to take on and challenge the classics, as has been done this semester by the third-year class of the Theatre and Drama Studies program with two Shakespeare plays: Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida.
The choice of works is intriguing. I have seen, read, and recited Romeo and Juliet so many times that I’ve lost count. My experiences with Troilus and Cressida, though, can be counted on one hand. Both involve doomed love stories set in a warzone. Under David Matheson’s direction and adaptation, both plays have been edited and reworked into one-act versions titled Occupy Verona and Alms for O, respectively. Though the form of the performance involves two fully developed and independent plays, each answers to the other’s themes.
For actors and directors alike, Shakespeare is both a best friend and an ultimate challenger. The text gives you everything: beautiful words, carefully measured rhyme and meter when you need it, and engaging characters and plots that have sung to the masses and the academics for hundreds of years. But speaking Shakespeare requires verbal athleticism comparable to running a half-marathon randomly interspersed with hundred-metre sprints. You can’t half-ass this stuff and expect the audience to follow you.
Here’s what worked: this is the first time Theatre Erindale has, in my four years at least, performed this kind of show and taken this kind of conceptual risk. It proves an amazing opportunity for the actors who benefit from the evenly distributed roles and a chance to tackle two full Shakespeare productions before heading out into the industry.
Occupy Verona reinterprets the play everyone studied in Grade 10 English and puts it in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here, the Montagues are the occupiers and the Capulets the owners of Capulet Incorporated. In a way, the stakes are higher in this version than in the original; it’s not just about family disputes but also ideological differences. And amid the chaotic urban warzone, Romeo (Stuart Hefford) and Juliet (Kira Meyers-Guiden) fall in love. As I said above, I learn something new every time I see a play performed. This time, I found myself really listening to parts of the play I had never heard before, notably the infamous Queen Mab speech delivered by Mercutio (Emma Robson) and Capulet’s (Nathaniel Voll) ultimatum on Juliet’s disobedience.
The aesthetic of Alms for O is also quite provocative. The play is set in 2015, but as if World War I never ended and has been raging for 101 years. In this dangerous setting of bombs and sandbag shelters, Troilus (Nathaniel Kingan) and Cressida (Tatiana Haas) come to life. Supposedly, this is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, caught somewhere between comedy, tragedy, and history, but the cast makes it look easy.
The casting for both plays involves gender-bending, which works because often it doesn’t really matter what gender a character is. The casting is based on how well a personality fills the need. I found that both Benvolio (Chelsea Riesz) and Pandarus (Larissa Crawley) adapted well to their roles. Even though Romeo is flanked by two sexually aware women, I never questioned the fact that his attentions didn’t drift from Rosaline to either of his friends. As for Pandarus, I don’t know why Shakespeare wrote the character as a male. It makes so much sense when played by a woman, and in fact I have never seen it done any other way.
Despite both plays technically being tragedies, Matheson found ways to work in a healthy amount of humour. It’s not about creating jokes where they don’t exist, but rather being attentive to what goes on between and beneath the lines. Shakespeare might possess godlike status, but I really don’t think he took himself that seriously; both plays are riddled with sexual innuendo and opportunities for physical humour.
Five hundred years ago or so, Shakespeare’s plays entertained everyone from Queen Elizabeth I to the London rabble that stood in all weather for three-hour performances. That was contemporary theatre. So although Shakespeare is now considered classical, even sacred, I stand firmly behind contemporary interpretation. These plays need to remain accessible so they don’t disappear.
Occupy Verona/Alms for O plays at the Erindale Studio Theatre until March 1.