The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night.
Like softest music to attending ears.
Lines from one of the most famous scenes in the history of theatre, Juliet on her balcony, Romeo in the orchard below.
This spring, reading the memoirs of Alec Guinness, the British stage and film actor, I was reminded that it had been a while since we had seen any theatre off the Island. So in the course of arranging a trip to visit family in Toronto, I included an outing to the Stratford Festival. Our original intention was to see two Shakespeare performances in one day—one matinee, one in the evening—but as things turned out we were only able to get tickets for the evening performance of Romeo and Juliet.
The festival has set up a bus service from downtown Toronto to the town of Stratford, and it allowed us to do the trip conveniently without changing hotels or renting a car.
Once in my seat in the famous Stratford theatre it came to me that I had taken my place in the same theatre for the same play in the summer of 1960, more than 50 years before. I could remember that the young Bruno Gerussi played Romeo, that Kate Reid played the Nurse (both actors gone now), but after a half century I was uncertain about the rest of the cast. Later research would inform me that Juliet had been played by the famous American actress Julie Harris, and that Christopher Plummer was (of course!) Mercutio.
Back on the Island I found that my friend Fred Euringer, whose account of his young life as an actor and director, A Fly on the Curtain, offers a good deal of insight into the theatre of the time, was in the cast for that 1960 version of Romeo and Juliet, and he offered some interesting detail about how Michael Langham, the director, had given a suitable formal grace to a play in which, by the magic of first love, two young people breathe in rhyme and speak in sonnets.
The Stratford Festival was a central cultural phenomenon of my youth. Anyone with an interest in the theatre knew who was acting there each year and what parts they were playing. There was a small community of Canadian actors who had begun to make their way after World War II, and alongside some dedicated English imports, they formed something like a resident company. Stratford was the centre of theatre in Canada and offered one after another of the Shakespeare plays, along with some other repertoire of the English and European theatre.
Romeo and Juliet, always a favourite, and a play saleable for school trips, had been produced, I later discovered, eight times between the 1960 version and the one I had come to see. But the reviews of this year’s version were not good. A friend referred to it as “epically awful.”
The British director, Tim Carroll, is one of those who work at the new Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames, exploring the original stage practices of Shakespeare’s time. The frequent presence of musicians onstage was perhaps his most appealing addition. I also found that playing with the lights up, as if in an open theatre on a summer afternoon, contributed a certain relaxation. Sara Topham as Juliet and Kate Hennig as the Nurse were lively and effective.
The heart of the play is in the verse—formal, decorative, graceful. Romeo and Juliet is a lyric tragedy, but sadly, this was a performance which too often abandoned verbal grace and youthful innocence for easy laughs. Still, the music was splendid, the Stratford stage itself elegant, distinguished, a fine piece of indoor architecture always worth a visit. And at least some of Shakespeare’s lines survived—the artless, exalted girl on the balcony, the voices of the intoxicated lovers in the imaginary night. Shakespeare once again created his memorable dream of life.