Romeo & Juliet-The Shakespeare Company- Calgary


Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Ron Jenkins

Playing at the Vertigo Studio Theatre October 1st-17th


The timeless tragedy of Romeo & Juliet has ignited the imaginations of storytellers throughout the ages. Though I had first seen the ballet version when I was young, it was a racy introduction to Fair Verona in Zeffirelli’s 1968 film which stands out as my maiden voyage on Queen Mab’s dream chariot. Whether your first memory is of John McEnery’s stirring battle to the death in the bone-dry courtyard of Zeffirelli’s sounds stage, or Claire and Leo’s fated glimpse through the fish tank in Baz Luhrmann’s vibrant and visceral Venice Beach tale, or the menacing snaps of the Jets through the streets of New York in West Side Story, all of us have grown up with this tragic tale of youth, love, loyalty and consequence.

It has been told through page, stage and screen interpretations spanning more genres than any of Shakespeare’s other works. Though many chime in with “tired, dull and over-done”, this wide variety of retellings proves that the journey of these characters is so universal that it can be told in a hundred different ways, each connecting with a diverse audience. So whether your Romeo wears ballet tights, Hawaiian shirts, or combs his hair like Elvis, there are always new characters to discover in every production. Calgary’s The Shakespeare Company breaths new life into each and every role with vigor and passion in their production of this very popular, always gripping tale.

One of Shakespeare’s earliest romances, R&J is based on an Italian novella and was as popular for Elizabethan audiences in the late 16th century as it is for us today. The families Capulet and Montague have long been at war in the streets of Verona, a city where you wear your allegiance proudly on your sleeve. As the only child of Lord Capulet, Juliet is a marital pawn for her family and knows she must submit to her father’s will. However, a chance meeting with the heir of her family’s sworn enemy, Romeo Montague, tests her young hearts loyalty and she finds that her only love has sprung from her only hate. Romeo, whose name means always in and out of love, is a young romantic who has been sowing his wild oats and causing (mostly) harmless mischief with his spirited friends Mercutio and Benvolio. He soon discovers just how much he is willing to sacrifice to be with Juliet and his actions, though rooted in love and devotion, have deadly consequences.

Director Ron Jenkin’s visual interpretation of Verona brings our star-crossed lovers into a quasai-modern setting- Moroccan style lanterns, plush fabrics and arched doorways give us just enough of the exotic to present Verona as an undetermined distant land, and though street duels are still fought with rapiers, our brawlers wear leather and denim instead of doublet and hose. Cross-casting Amy Burks as Romeo’s devoted and fun-loving cousin Benvolio and Elizabeth Stepkowski-Tarrhan as the Prince of Verona (she also plays the delightfully bawdy Nurse) are welcome gender swaps that encourage us to realise that both men and women fight equally for their allegiances here. Modern music firmly establishes the story as one contemporary audiences can relate to.

Once again, The Shakespeare Company must be commended for their commitment to telling the story through the natural voices of their actors rather than hiding behind a put on “Shakespeare Voice”. It is a brave choice when most productions, for some unfathomable reason, favour a stuffy tradition of forcing their actors into a strangely skewed semi-British accent “because it’s Shakespeare, dahling”! By trusting the actors to convey Shakespeare’s text in their natural voices, our players are free to explore a deeper connection with their characters and a stronger understanding of the story. The audience truly benefits from this seemingly simple choice, and we are welcomed into a story that is for everyone, not just the elite and well-to-do.

Lesser productions often mask the well-known fact that R&J as characters are very young (Nurse tells us Juliet is not yet 14 years old), perhaps to avoid a perceived social awkwardness around teenage sexuality. Allison Lynch plays an appropriately youthful Juliet, endeavouring to explore the characters arduous emotional and hormonal journey, though perhaps only dipping a toe into the sea of possibilities. Her lightness of spirit early on allows us to feel every gut-wrenching moment as she descends into darkness and despair, her emotional strength battered not only by her personal circumstances, but by her struggles to understand and undertake her daunting transition from maid to woman to widow.

Eric Wigston plays a magnetic, romantic, but ultimately conflicted Romeo whose constant inner battle is intimately shared with us. His sensitive delivery of the text shows mastery well beyond his years, the true mark of a great Shakespearean actor. Rather than relying on the popular trap of flat tragic-romantic hero clichés, Wigston’s brave portrayal of an intelligent, charming but fallible young man at odds with his situation and his own heart gives us a multi-facetted, truly human Romeo and the stand out performance of the production.

The Shakespeare Company’s production has championed more young talent such as Amy Burks (Benvolio) and Ahad Mir (Tybalt), whose spirited and honest performances flesh out a truthful and believable world alongside seasoned actors like Elizabeth Stepkowski-Tarhan who brings the much-loved Nurse to life with warmth, love and tangible heartbreak. With some great acting, edge-of-your-seat fights, and interesting conceptual presentation, the entire creative team at The Shakespeare Company gives us yet another delightfully heart-wrenching theatre experience.

Romeo & Juliet runs at Vertigo’s Studio Theatre downtown Calgary from October 1st to 17th at 7pm with 2:30pm matinées on the 3rd, 4th, 11th, and 17th. Tickets can be purchased online at or on the door

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