Shakespeare meets Commedia dell’arte in the open air at Raadhuis de Paauw.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ is one of Shakespeare’s best known tragedies. But even classics can benefit from a little refreshment. German theatre company, Globe Ensemble Berlin, has endeavoured to do just that. By drawing inspiration from Italian Comedy of the 16th century (Commedia dell’arte), replete with Harlequin-inspired face paint, their performance brings new comic life to the star-crossed story of Juliet and her Romeo.
The introduction of music, with lyrics both comic and tragic, brought an added dimension to the play. It began with a guitar-lead serenade played by three youths that referenced the power of both the heart and the eyes – a common Shakespearean motif. A little later, we meet Romeo playing a heart-felt ballad of unrequited love for the unattainable Rosaline. While at the Capulet ball, music is provided by the three Montague youths, who have gate crashed the party disguised as musicians. They entertain the guests with a jaunty tune that uses lyrics drawn from one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets – My Mistress’s Eyes are Nothing like the Sun.
Elements of the stock characters that are so central to Comedia dell’arte are effectively used to increase the comic tempo of the play. The Capulet servant is presented as the archetypal Italian chef, replete in his whites and exaggerated Italian accent. Scenes between him and the nurse provide much laughter. While the more sombre role of Friar Lawrence is imbued with comic irony as his costume suggests elements of a new age Tibetan monk with shaved head, tattoos and an alternative life style to go with them. Indeed, the play also draws for inspiration on Baz Luhrmann’s widely acclaimed film version (1996) in its celebration of youth and youth culture.
Many of the roles are played by young actors who, along with their German accents and tattoos, bring a strong physical focus to the production. Fight scenes are vigorous, even acrobatic at times, increasing the comedic aspect of the play. Even Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene and marriage night are shot through with the comic exuberance of youth, reminiscent of the Luhrmann production. Nevertheless, musical accompaniment of the harp is cleverly used to temper this and the medieval ballad comes into its own as it did in the days of the Bard himself.
In keeping with the tradition of the pantomime, itself a descendant of the Comedia dell’arte tradition, characters interact with the audience in a manner that is designed again to heighten the comedic tone of the production. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech benefits from interaction with the audience as do Benvolio’s attempts to counsel his heart-sick friend in the ways of love. In this musical version of Romeo and Juliet, the patriarchs of both feuding families are largely absent. Instead, both Lord and Lady Montague are played by an imposing matriarchal figure who fills both roles admirably.
The Globe Ensemble Berlin describes itself as standing for spectacular, sensual, audience-oriented theatre. Last night’s production of Romeo and Juliet definitely fits the bill. Souwie Buis 12th September 2021