New Brunswick bills itself as Canada’s truly bicultural province, but the slogan always papered over long-standing tensions between English and French. Linguistic chauvinism still surfaces on open-line radio shows and the comments sections of local news sites—so often, in fact, that the Saint John Theatre Company has made New Brunswick the backdrop to its forthcoming production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “We’re not saying that all the English people here throw rocks at the French people, and vice versa,” says Stephen Tobias, the company’s executive director. “But there are very small groups on both sides that make a lot of noise. That’s what we’re thinking of.”
How well these antagonists stand for the Montagues and Capulets, the familial rivals in Shakespeare’s play, is an open question. Romeo’s faction will speak English in the production; Juliet’s will speak French, using lines from a translation of the play by Victor Hugo. But Tobias thinks the adaptation will resonate with the province’s theatregoers, who are used to debates over everything from education funding to road maintenance devolving into mindless trash talk, much of it laced with ethnic stereotypes.
The company is also anticipating criticism—and not just because New Brunswick poses a challenging setting for romance. When the curtain rises on May 19 at Saint John’s majestic Imperial Theatre, the show will offer a convenient punching bag to rights groups on both banks of the linguistic divide, while others may question the wisdom of stirring a dormant controversy. “I guarantee there will be someone who will take exception to the fact we’re even talking about this,” says Tobias. “But to me, that’s all the more reason to do so. If this encourages people to talk sensibly, instead of yelling at each other, then I think we’ve won.”