The photo of Romeo and Juliet’s Hunter Cardinal and Cayley Thomas lost in each other’s embrace next to a stone arch is highly suggestive of the intractable world the star-crossed lovers live in.
Free Will Shakespeare Festival’s costume designer Megan Koshka dresses Juliet in the purest white and Romeo in the palest grey, a cool palette that implies they live in a cocooned world of dreamy intoxication.
But the heady fragrance of innocent blissful love is missing. The facial expressions convey anxiety. And rightly so. The modern-dress production is filled with violence on Verona’s streets and abuse behind closed doors.
Right from the first scene, Romeo’s cronies scrap with Juliet’s kinsmen in a mild skirmish. As the production marches on, the clashes become more heated until a couple of testosterone fuelled jocks take part in a rumble that ends in death.
Shakespeare’s tragedy of young lovers separated by an ancient family feud, and director Marianne Copithorne’s vision focuses on familial hatred by two clans that probably no longer remember the original disagreement.
For the Capulets and Montagues, two of Verona’s leading families, the fighting is a habit, a sport, a way to distance oneself from boredom. Unfortunately, when hatred knows no bounds, the first victims are the innocent peacemakers.
In a tale with numerous layers, Copithorne’s directing approach to both the conceptual scenes and the romantic encounters allows for just the right sparks to develop between the leads.
Hunter Cardinal in his debut performance as Romeo has dark, youthful good looks that serve the role well. And the energy and conviction he brings to the language makes him a very credible hero.
He transmits the notion of Romeo as a passionate idealist too naÄŹve to see the inflexibility of a culture he was born in and expected to lead. Yet it is this very naÄŹvetĂ© in trying to break from the past that utterly charms.
Cayley Thomas returns as Juliet after her 2012 performance in The Tempest as Miranda. In Juliet’s role, Thomas is graceful, pretty and innocent and she easily passes for a girl of 14.
It’s a difficult role that requires an actress to convey a pure virtue that is swept up in waves of romantic emotion. But the role also requires Juliet to have intelligence and follow her desires.
At first Thomas falls back on the love struck smiles, tender gazes and lingering kisses. It is during the balcony scene we see Juliet’s sweetness and vulnerability. But as the play progresses, her rebellious streak and determination to lead life on her terms is evidenced.
One scene completely sucked the breath out of me. When Juliet refuses to marry the well-connected aristocratic Paris (Ryan Parker), her father, Lord Capulet, (Robert Benz) holds her up by the neck and chokes her, swearing he will disown her completely if she disobeys him.
It’s no wonder Juliet wants to get out from under his thumb and find love.
Ironically, the play’s strongest friendships are those not connected by blood. Romeo turns to the genteel wisdom of Friar Lawrence (John Wright) and Juliet to her gossipy, but warm-hearted Nurse (Louise Lambert).
Jesse Gervais’ Mercutio is the ultimate showman, arrogant and boastful. But his constant crotch thrusts, winking and lewd gestures were overdone and ended up detracting from an otherwise bold performance.
Nathan Cuckow as Tybalt is predictably short-fused and Belinda Cornish’ Lady Capulet is every inch the elegant, sensual aristocrat who despises her husband.
Romeo and Juliet is one of the greatest love stories ever told and when the lovers die, it leaves a chill in the air far removed from the temperature.
Underneath the romantic love story, there’s a message about the destructiveness of hate. How often have we heard that same message in the news lately, and when will we learn?
Romeo and Juliet runs at Hawrelak Park’s Heritage Amphitheatre until July 16.
Romeo and Juliet
Free Will Shakespeare Festival
Runs until July 16
Tickets: Visit freewillshakespeare.com