What’s in a name? If you’re a new theater outfit in town that calls itself the Manila Shakespeare Company, a boatload of confidence.
But such a grand name comes with the peril of high expectations, and its maiden production, which recently ended its brief run, fell short of them. Directed by Nicanor P. Campos (in his first professional effort) with Christine Cojuangco as assistant director, the Manila Shakespeare Company’s take on “Romeo and Juliet,” the Bard’s well-known play of star-crossed love was, at best, a mixed bag.
The cast, good and bad
Crucial to the success of any production is the casting of its young protagonists, and this production nailed it. Nelsito Gomez and Rachel Coates as the hero and heroine, respectively, are young, attractive and were able to convey a youthful ebullience made of both innocence and naïveté.
For her part, Katski Flores as Juliet’s nurse, played as the long-serving and ever-loyal yaya, won the audience with her earthiness and humor.
The depictions of Mercutio and Tybalt, though, weighed down this show. Micko Yabut’s Mercutio made all the right gestures and wore the right clothes. (In this modern-dress interpretation, where youths wore jackets or hoodies over their T-shirts and sneakers below their skinny jeans, Mercutio’s togs were bright orange, his blazer checkered. His sartorial choices stood out in a color palette deliberately muted—black, gray, beige, white.)
But there was not enough naughtiness, impudence and bad-boy braggadocio in his turn as one of literature’s most famous scene-stealers.
Strangely, Jonas Gruet played Tybalt as a sullen youth. True, he towered menacingly over Romeo, yet he kept his hands in his pockets at the masked ball, slinking away from the dancing. When he promised to avenge the insult of Romeo crashing their party, his threat had no heat.
A key loss, since the scene that hatches the unlikely attraction of the two lovers also births the desire for vengeance that will bring it to its terrible close. Without this sense of danger, a feeling of impending doom goes missing, and the unseen hand of tragedy steering the story’s course toward catastrophe doesn’t grab your throat. It’s not catharsis that fills you but merely a pleasant sadness.
Space, light, sound
The company made clever use of the Teatrino in Greenhills. The theater was spun around, the audience made to sit facing the rear of the structure. It was neat, because there’s a balcony at the back, and a wide curved walkway with multilevel recessed platforms became the stage. The stone pillars and red-brick walls were made to suffice for very little scenery.
Yet the swaths of room opened up were underused. Opportunities to do split-scenes in multiple locales weren’t exploited. There was confusion in the use of the balcony and the space below. The lighting was rudimentary, and there was little by way of sound design, an aural emptiness compounded by a lack of music.
In the opening scuffle, no music or sound effects heightened the tension or created the sense of a city roiled by clan violence. The balcony scene, while charming, didn’t have any musical enchantment to make it truly transportive.
Localizing the Bard
But appraising this production by asking how well its parts fit together isn’t enough. We need to ask what the company intends. Its marketing kit says: “Locally, we can understand feelings of intimidation or a lack of interest [in Shakespeare]… But, as our research and experience has revealed time and again, the cross-cultural relevance of plays like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ can be carefully and clearly illustrated.”
The Manila Shakespeare Company, then, is expressly interested in the “cross-cultural relevance” of Shakespeare’s plays. Different productions that transplant these stories from the England of Elizabeth I to other eras and cultures have demonstrated how they “gain stunning new vitality when viewed through the lens of seemingly alien cultures.” Hence, the need for a “production that views a play like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ through our national/community lens.”
What exactly does that last sentence mean? We are left to ask the question: What does ‘Romeo and Juliet’ reveal when viewed through the “national/community lens” that the company provides? What is this lens, and what form does it take in the production? More fundamentally, how does the company understand “nation”? What “community” does it imagine itself representing and speaking to?
I understood the declaration to mean that the company intends to localize the play. (The first word of the group’s name is “Manila,” after all.) That is, to reframe the play in a local context, thereby opening up avenues of meaning into the text. If so, it is by no means the first to make the attempt.
How did the company “localize” the play? Very superficially, I’m afraid. The Capulets and Montagues spoke the Bard’s English with a crisp American accent, while the nurse and other servants spoke their English with a hard, stereotypically Filipino accent.
Lord Capulet spat out “Conyo!” every now and then and called Peter the servant “Tonto!” Speaking of Peter, he was the embodiment of the gay comedy stereotype, sashaying behind the nurse in red headband as she ran her errands. The Capulets’ partygoers held up smartphones and tablets to take photos and video. And that was about it.
It’s as if those who thought up this production had no idea Tanghalang Ateneo recently staged “Sintang Dalisay,” a reworking of this same story based on a narrative poem and Rolando Tinio’s translation, that moves it to a fictional town in Muslim Mindanao, that deploys the dance vocabulary of the Igal, that fuses the text with the throb of gongs and kulintang.
Or that Tanghalang Pilipino had transformed this tale of high-born families into “R’meo Luvs Dew-lhiett,” about rival gangs in Tondo where the principals, dressed in the height of “jologs” fashion, spew Taglish hip-hop verse.
In fact, I got the sense that this show’s creative minds had no notion of, or didn’t care about, the recent history of Shakespeare adaptations by Manila-based theater groups. (Tellingly, the model productions listed in the marketing kit are all foreign.)
To sit in the Teatrino the day I watched this “Romeo and Juliet” was to feel caught in a time warp. As if the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s (Peta) reimagined “Twelfth Night” as “D’Wonder Twins of Boac,” or Dulaang UP’s “Titus Andronicus” and its “Measure for Measure” (“Hakbang sa Hakbang”), had never hit the stage. As if Ricardo Abad had not grafted “The Taming of the Shrew” onto Bicol in his “Pagpapaamo ng Maldita.” As if Ron Capinding had not written “William,” staged by Peta, a play about students in a Manila high school grappling with Shakespeare’s verses and with the travails of growing up, then finding wisdom and solace in his plays by rewriting his speeches or turning them into rap lyrics.
All of these, and much more, have been done. These productions had their flaws, yes, and many of them weren’t thoroughly successful in appropriating the Bard. But they were insightful, enthralling and provocative, plus they all had a courage and vividness of imagination that the Manila Shakespeare Company hasn’t yet shown it possesses.
By localizing the story the way it did, the company also inadvertently reinforced one of the play’s more pernicious ideas: that tragedies are only for the high-born. (Shakespeare, to be fair, had genre restrictions to deal with; in his time, tragedy was a literary form that demanded the use of kings, princes or generals as protagonists. His comedies are far more expansive. But no such limits apply to contemporary theater.)
To have done the play with the nurse as yaya and the servant as beki without irony, without sensitivity, without signaling awareness of the damage done in trading in these stereotypes, was to affirm ugly notions of class.
So no matter how appealing Katski Flores made her nurse, this isn’t her story. It’s about her amo. Seen through the “national/community lens” the company provides, this “Romeo and Juliet” sent an unfortunate message: The lives of the upper crust matter more than those of others.
The people who gave shape to this production may be surprised to learn that most of the nation don’t look like Nelsito Gomez’s very tisoy Romeo or Rachel Coates’ very tisay Juliet. (Though, I imagine, many of us wish we did; one of our tragic flaws.) And where, except in small pockets in our cities, do we find youths wearing hoodies, blazers, skinny jeans and sneakers toting smartphones and speaking impeccable English?
Ultimately, the Manila Shakespeare Company’s localizing of “Romeo and Juliet” unwittingly valorized a very narrow stratum of society.
Yet, these are flaws I can forgive for the first effort of a young director and a fledgling troupe. Bringing Shakespeare to the stage in these parts, after all, can be a daunting, tangled, messy affair. (Many have tried.)
One hopes that the Manila Shakespeare Company’s next offerings come closer to the lofty standards its name sets for itself. To the troupe and the creative minds that move it, fare thee well and God b’w’ye.