Romeo & Juliet: Performed by Many Greats
(This post was originally written May 2013, and updated September 2018)
I can’t wait for opening night at the Stratford Festival: I love the pomp of the red carpet and this year it will be especially good with Romeo and Juliet as the opening play. This will mark the fourth time I’ve seen Shakespeare’s great romantic tragedy on the Festival stage.
Romeo and Juliet was the first show I ever saw in Stratford. My older sister took my mother and me to see it in 1968 when I was in grade seven. I was excited about it beforehand for all the important reasons: it was an opportunity for me to wear the denim flower-power print mini-dress I had made in 4–H club. I remember being amazed at the circular theatre, and the huge number of people in it. (Probably before that night, the biggest audience I had ever seen for a show was in the church basement or school gym, so the Festival Theatre seemed really big.)
Then the show began. I remember thinking that I didn’t really understand what they were saying, but still I knew what was going on. Seeing live actors on a stage was thrilling. What I didn’t realize then was that I was seeing theatre stars! Christopher Walken as Romeo and Louise Marleau as Juliet! Yes, that Christopher Walken, when he was young and handsome, reaching up in the balcony scene. Yes, the same Christopher Walken who is famous for the cow bell sketch in Saturday Night Live! Louise Marleau is well-known in Quebec starring in many francophone movies.
I didn’t get back to see Romeo and Juliet again until 1992. But it was a wonderful experience and a superior production. I was teaching English and Communications at Centralia College near Exeter at the time. I had a class of young women taking the Food Service Supervisors program. It was my job to improve their grammar and writing skills, and work on public speaking, too. We did not have any literature in the curriculum. But then a flyer from the Stratford Festival arrived in the mail, saying tickets were only $2 each for college classes. I informed my students we were planning an outing to Stratford. Immediately the whining began. It will be so boring. We hate Shakespeare. We won’t know what they are saying. And on, and on.
So I interrupted our course of study on apostrophes, where we were learning the difference between possessives and contractions, and spent a few days studying Romeo and Juliet. (I didn’t let the class know that I had never taught literature before…) When the date arrived, off we went, and they were still kicking and complaining. We had lunch by the Avon River, and when I was standing at the head of a line of picnic tables, talking to my students, a swan waddled up and stole the sandwich right out of my hand. It gave the group a laugh and we went into the theatre in good spirits.
Suddenly they were spell-bound. When intermission came, they turned to me and said “It’s not over, is it?” (In the theatre etiquette lecture, I neglected to mention there would be an intermission.) They wanted more. After the show, as we were boarding our bus, all the young women were reaching for Kleenexes. It was unanimous – that was the most beautiful, wonderful thing they had ever seen. And sooooooooo sad. One student said that it was better than “Dirty Dancing”, which up until then, had been her favourite show. High praise, indeed. When the year end came, they gave me a card, where many of them cited the Stratford trip as the highlight of the year.
It was a wonderful production, with Antoni Cimolino as Romeo and Megan Porter Follows as Juliet. They were the perfect star-crossed lovers. Today, Antoni Cimolino is Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, and Megan Porter Follows is, of course, famous as Anne in the Anne of Green Gables movies, among many other movie and TV roles in both Canada and the US.
Then in 2008, I enjoyed Gareth Potter as Romeo and Nikki M. James as Juliet. It was an unusual production, complete with a motorcycle.
Many interesting people have been in the lead roles of Romeo and Juliet over the years at Stratford. Way back in 1960, Bruno Gerussi of Beachcombers fame was Romeo. In 1977, Richard Monette was Romeo and Marti Maraden was Juliet: both went on to be Artistic Directors at Stratford, Monette for many years, Maraden briefly. In 1984, Colm Feore played Romeo while Seana McKenna played Juliet, both of them Stratford favourites. And if you’ve taken a French class anytime since 2006, you’ve seen Colm Feore in the movie Bon Cop, Bad Cop – the great Canadian bilingual film.
So this year (2013) we will be seeing Daniel Briere as Romeo and Sara Topham as Juliet. Let’s see what memories they will conjure in our imaginations, when we look back in retrospect a few years from now.
Note: Since I wrote this, I have seen another Romeo and Juliet — a wonderfully, feisty Juliet played by Sara Farb, with Antoine Yared as Romeo in 2017.
Announced September 18, 2018… Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino will present this year’s Legacy Award to Megan Follows, one of Canada’s most beloved performers, who shot to fame around the world for her award-winning portrayal of Anne in the 1985 miniseries Anne of Green Gables and its sequel Anne of Avonlea. Cimolino and Follows played opposite each other as Romeo and Juliet in Stratford in 1992.
“Megan was always incredibly gifted and she has become extremely accomplished not only as an actor on stage and screen but now as a director as well,” says Cimolino. “It’s such a pleasure to celebrate the great success of a friend with whom I shared a critical moment of early development on the Festival stage.”