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Romeo and Juliet

Sydney Theatre Company presents The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

Kip Williams, the Director of this production of ROMEO AND JULIET, tells us in his program note:

… When I came to reread ROMEO AND JULIET with a mind to direct it, I was struck less by the differences between the Montagues and Capulets, and more by the similarities: excessive wealth, unchecked ego, dominant patriarchs, packs of arrogant young men. The ancient grudge between the families felt like it could easily be the kind of rivalry defined by the threat one feels when faced with an opponent who is deeply similar to oneself. What became clear to me was not a world split into two distinct halves, but rather a portrait of a singular universe; a world of old money, filled with vacuous narcissism and steeped in unquestioned tradition. … … In this telling of ROMEO AND JULIET, I have sought to situate the birth of our protagonists’ love in the context of (an idealistic) drive to re-imagine their futures. In doing so, I have focused the action more specifically on the Capulet family, stripping the number of characters from 20-odd to just 10. As such, the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets sits not as the locus of the story but rather as another part of the fabric of this singular world – a world where violence is born of boredom, habit, alcoholism and ego. …

This could sound alarming to the traditionalists amongst us, but in practice what Mr Williams has done in his textual excisions, re-writes and interpolations (sonnets et al) is to create a work that is still satisfying as an experience of the original text that we might know by William Shakespeare. Mr Williams, really, is just following the example of the Royal Shakespeare Company geniuses: Peter Brook, Peter Hall, John Barton, John Dexter, Trevor Nunn etc. – and many in history before then, “cutting and pasting”, adapting with respect and an eye to, perhaps, the social relevancies of the original Shakespeare work, for his contemporaries. “Shakespeare Our Contemporary.” The respect for the text is the shining glow to Mr Williams employment of Shakespeare’s writing, here. Intelligence and clever sensitivities. The shift of focus is not that radical and what Mr Williams has imagined with his company is fairly convincing and well spoken enough to have one in a kind of, for me, an unexpected thrall. I liked this production a lot.

And it is not just because of the simply centred and carefully thought through performance, skilfully spoken Juliet by Eryn Jean Norvill, one of the more arresting performances of Juliet that I have seen – wonderful, and truly moving in its musical and emotional intelligence. But, also, because of the conception and execution of this individual response to the original play. Of course, in all of the many encounters I have had with this play, and there are many, many, including the other contemporary appropriations, WEST SIDE STORY etc, it is always the Juliet figure that dominates the story. It is written that way. She is the most daring, most active, most mature and most insightful character in the play. Shakespeare, himself, tells us in the last lines of the play:

… For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Juliet and Romeo, not, Romeo and Juliet. I am sure it is not to just capture the doggerel rhyme that it finishes this way!

Mr Williams with David Fleischer, his designer, has created for the first half of the play, a fluid, physically shifting action for the storytelling, using the double revolve of the Drama Theatre stage. There is a large, dominant, empty, dirty white walled ‘period’ room of what was once, perhaps, a mansion house, that is rarely static when in use, and where the passing parade/action takes place; it is occasionally “colonised’ for other settings e.g. the garden of the herbalist/priest Friar Laurence (Mitchell Butel). This large room is contrasted with a shallow edged path, hung over by a looming, black-walled set of obvious theatrical flats that have no other statement to make, pocked with white doors that allow surprise entrances and egress, and a long window that substitutes for the balcony. The lighting by Nicholas Rayment, mostly, creates pragmatic spaces, to focus the action for the audience, or generalised states of spaciousness – not much beauty here – re-enforcing the sense of a society in decay. The design visuals are effective in suggesting the shallow rootlessness of this world, and its sense of a hovering, impending, dark doom.

The ‘play’ of the male youth in this world, “the pack of arrogant men”, is disrespectful and indulgent, indulged – swinging from chandeliers, stacks of empty bottles of alcohol around their living spaces, registering a kind of chimerical dissolution, cigarettes as easily accessible as ‘flick’ or dagger knives, clothing (costumes) of the impermanent, throwaway kind, nothing truly fitting or of quality – all representing a paucity of good taste and a simple kind of animal indulgence: flimsy camouflage for their sexual obscenities of thought, word and deed.

Mercutio (Eamon Farren) and his buddy, Benvolio (Akosh Armont) are fast, foul-mouthed punks blessed with a kind of verbal ‘posh’-like poetry – Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech is accompanied by Mr Farren’s louche physicality, underlining his ever spiralling, focusing language descent into the Shakespearean obscene allusions:

               “This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
                 That presses them and learns them first to bear,
                 Making them women of good carriage.”      (Act 1 Sc.4 L. 92-94.)

 – dilettantes of the filthy rich, with ‘rich-fouled’ imaginations- who when confronted with unreasonable anger in the presence/form of Tybalt (Josh McConville) – scoff, joke and predictably, underestimate there ability to survive it.

Romeo (Dylan Young), the third wheel of this gang of bored louts seems to be on the edge of some metamorphosis from youth to manhood but is essentially crippled by a youthful lust, first for Rosalind, and then, fatally, for Juliet, the daughter of the enemy house. After ‘gate-crashing’ the Montague party, with his mates, masked like the white rabbits from a David Lynch film, and seeing Juliet, he begins a possible transformation to a better, more mature, poetic, considerate state, she teasing his rough lust into intimations of love, through the games of language. Alas, too late, for Romeo’s pyschopathic inclination to violence, bred in his early behaviours with his ‘bros’, is provoked, with the street brawl murder of his comrade, Mercutio, so that in a blind and passionate temper, it consumes him, and unhinges the world for them all. Romeo’s fate is as a double murderer ( a revenge killing of Tybalt and a later killing of an innocent, Paris) and suicide, not the romantic, respectable equal partner to this Juliet. His mirrored use of imagery awoken in the glow of Juliet, in the famous ‘balcony’ scene is contrasted aurally for us, undermined by his plebeian dialectical usage of his mother tongue – the music of his voice not matching the ‘beauty’ of his Juliet’s imagery or musical sound.

In the first two acts Mr Williams has his design elements giddily whisking us through typical comic fare – the double entendres allowing Shakespeare to be both both romantic and sexual at once – and assisting a gem of comic assiduousness and cunning from the truly remarkable performance of Julie Forsyth as the Nurse. With injured voice, nursed to clarity of intention and wit, with a shining intelligence, hilariously bedecked in costume, that, in the several changes, are servants to Ms Forsyth’s unerring creativity as a mischievous bawd becoming the go-between for the ill-starred lovers. The madness of her fringe-dress in the ballroom, a ‘key’ image of the fateful folly of indulged and simple stupidity, in this world on the brink of tragedy. The first part of this production finishes with an inspired directorial comic journey,using the revolve with great wit, when Juliet in disguise as the Nurse travels to the cell of Friar Laurence to wed. The low comedy of near recognition and meetings is counterpointed with a triumphant classic music score that finishes in a timely, elevated fashion with the fateful wedding kiss- to give conclusion of the first half, a golden comic high. The composed music/Sound Design is by Alan John.

Daringly, there is no setting for the second half of the play, just a huge open black maw, intimating the black tragedy that will ensue: where the physical action of intimidatory brawl and murder, and uncompromising patriarchal bullying can be starkly shown in spacious staging, until, from behind a descended curtain is revealed a ‘metaphor’ of design imagery of white sheeted double beds that spread across this vast dark hole acting as the grave catafalques for the denouement of the story. The dead body of Tybalt counterbalancing the drugged body of sleeping Juliet, both resting with a pillowed head and crossed arms on chest. The fight scene that opens the second half is wonderfully staged by Fight Director, Nigel Poulton, and the actors ‘dance’ the ‘choreography with vital energy – it is spectacular, having the entire bare stage to enact it in. Here, too, in this space, the power of the patriarch Capulet (Colin Moody), one of the emphatic themes of Mr Williams interpretation of the play, is impressive, with his family of women spaced dramatically, sculpturally around the maw, as he wilfully bullies the wedding of Juliet and Paris, directly.

This production finishes with the shooting of guns and has Juliet in the trauma of drug recovery and shocked grief brandishing one threateningly at her father and family, and finally in her wedding/funeral dress, coming to the centre of the downstage edge, holding it to her own head. The lights fade – Juliet does not pull the trigger. That she will, we may conclude, with fore-knowledge of the well known story. Or, not? Why Mr Williams does not have the act shown, or supply the recorded report of the gun, one hopes is not a choice of political correct sensitivity – in having a young woman commit suicide by blowing her brains out being judged, censored, as not contemporaneously OK, as it may be too violent a statement, role model, to make in 2013, for this audience, which would, did include, many young people, who, studying the play at school, have come to see it staged? For us adults, the contemporary imaging of the tragic mayhem of this play has been wonderfully justified, and recognisable of the streets of our city, Sydney, by this company and production, and this final moment, in the Drama Theatre, is disappointingly weak. Was the bloody self-murder, suicide, of Juliet to outrageous an act to show this audience? It is, it seems to me, a logical progression of this play and, particularly, this production, and we are led to that moment of cataclysmic action. Was it too ‘scary’, too ‘full on’, for the contemporary audience to endure, to have it bloodily enacted for them, in front of them? (I hope it wasn’t for pragmatic dry cleaning reasons?!) A 14 year-old girl, caught in the romantic web of a poetic first love, attempting to escape from the bullying and stultifying surrounds of her family life, choosing to shoot herself, a contemporary reality to true to perform? The mother of a school-aged daughter, thought so, and was partially relieved. Curious conversation we had afterwards, with her hip young daughter from a private school – after all, she said, The Hunger Games is part of her imaginative scape and that is fiercely confronting. Indeed.

All the performances are concentrated and lively and the verse of Shakespeare, mostly, handled well (Charmian Gradwell. The actors are all wired with mics for sound: the Radio Mic Technician, Remy Woods.) Ms Norvill is giving an outstanding reading of Juliet, truly funny, romantic and moving through all of her journey, from the first tentative entrance and speech, to the centre-stage gun to the head moment – not a moment wasted, not telling. Julie Forsyth creates a memorable Nurse. Eamon Farren, Akos Armont, create a double act of too true a contemporary reality, handling the Shakespearean challenges well, if not with enough vocal range to keep us alert, and clear, all of the time (speed and volume galore, but not enough pitch variation.) Dylan Young grows in confidence as Romeo, as the violent, emotional passions are invited to support the language, whilst there is some hesitancy with the romantics of his early verse. Mitchell Butel challenges us with a sexualised image of the gardening Catholic Friar Laurence, bare-torsoed in flamboyant dressing gown in his herbal garden, diminishing in potency as his meddling unravels, and, almost cowardly, absents himself from responsibility. Here, too, like Mr Young, Mr Butel is best with the verse, when the emotional passions are most nakedly necessary. Anna Lise Phillips creates a striking Lady Capulet balancing her neglectful mothering with a slavish indulgence of her femininity in a fashion plated presence, in contrast to the hulking uncompromising masculinity of her bully-husband, played piercingly, weightily, by Mr Moody. What Shakespeare has not given with text, Josh McConville delivers with embodied frightening mania as Tybalt – his looks could freeze his enemies to stone, inaction. Alexander England is a handsome four square presence, as the dupe Paris, in all the chaotic brawls of this corrupted and decayed Verona. These 10 actors make up for the other 10 or more characters not present in this production (assisted, wittily with anchored balloons in the ball scene.) It appeared to be an impressive ensemble. One must acknowledge the stage crew, as well, as an integral part of the ensemble – this production would flounder, be undone, without, what I witnessed, as flawless and invisible wizardry behind the scenes.

This STC production of ROMEO AND JULIET is a production of Shakesperae’s play, that I was really pleased to have seen. The 1594 original well served by this 2013 adaptation. Recommended. There will be much discussion guaranteed, after.

P.S.: $90.00 for ticket.
         $10.00 for program. (Free in New York! inclusive in the ticket price.)
         $5.00 ‘tax’ for attending, imposed by the Opera House Trust.

Total: $105.00.