Travesty at the Burg

‘Romeo & Julia’ as Punch & Judy

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | December 2008 / January 2009

"All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream..., All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream..." over an over in deadening repetition, confided by voice over in the hush of the darkened Burgtheater, should probably have been a warning – repeated a dozen times or more, relentlessly pounding the jeweled imagery of Shakespeare into a formless powder that dissipated into the dull haze that filled the stage as the lights went up. Twice or three times might have made sense with lines in English for a German speaking audience, but this? Well, as I say, perhaps I should have followed my instincts.

For what followed was so heavy handed and charmless – a kind of artistic death by blunt instrument – that the thought was only of the many ways the evening would have been better spent.  While great plays are hard to destroy, director Sebastian Hartmann managed in this debut production to degrade what is perhaps the loveliest and most transcendent of Shakespeare’s plays into Vaudeville slapstick, full of buffoonery and coarse gestures, that turned Romeo and Julia into a Punch and Judy show.

The play opens on a wasteland swirled in fog and storm with a stone hut rotating into position around the stage. Lights flashed and thunder roared, as a creature cloaked in patched furs sweeps past through the bleak, primeval scene.   A setting for MacBeth’s witches, perhaps ("When shall we three meet again, In thunder, lightening, or in rain?"), or perhaps the howling roar of The Tempest. But not Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s original play begins with a quarrel, not a storm, between young men of the Montagues and Capulets on the streets of Verona, "from ancient grudge to new mutiny." This is a story of how true love teaches forgiveness, unraveling the tangled knots of hatreds intractable for generations. Where there is violence, it is dignified, clothed in family pride within an aristocratic tradition, elevated through the poetic imagination of Shakespeare.

The young men in this misconceived work are made pointlessly ugly, swathed in crotch diapers and long johns that are stretched out and baggy at the knees, with an odd assortment of over garments that combined to look slovenly and cheap, setting the tone for the clumsy brawling.

The only moments with any emotional impact are the few encounters between the young lovers, Romeo and Julia, (Sven Dolinskiwho and Julia Hartmann) manage authentic emotional moments over the almost insurmountable distraction of the primitive barbarity on all sides.

One final word: Shakespeare – even in German – is about language. The German translations are fine and long-admired, and while not perhaps the transcendent poetry of the Bard, their language is elegant, and rich in many of the dimensions that burst forth from the original. Yet here, the text is truncated beyond recognition – shaved back into sound bites of expletives and abuse. If this is the kind of theater Hartmann wanted to produce, he should have found a script where his playground bullies were at home, instead of corrupting this masterpiece to fit his primitive world.

See Events for performance schedule, pg. 13

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