Almost a review: romeo&juliet

by Jane

It may be thought we held him carelessly,
Being our kinsman, if we revel much.
Therefore we’ll have some half a dozen friends,
And there an end. But what say you to Thursday?

– Act III, Scene IV

I think when you’re in high school, the texts and films you are exposed to in English and Drama tend to be either the best thing or the worst thing in the world. You’re a teenager: there isn’t a middle ground. It can be very dependent on the teacher,  but sometimes great teachers can assign terrible texts, while terrible teachers can expose you to playwrights, and knowledge about those playwrights, which still shape the way you look at theatre when you’re 21. Sometimes, they’re terrible simply because you have to read or watch them fifty million times, and you get asked inane questions on what the author was trying to deeply symbolise. My answers that maybe they just liked it, or “because it was funny” didn’t always go down a treat.

What good is Shakespearian tragedy without violence? Great movement choreography by Larissa McGowan. Michaela Cantwell as Romeo, Thomas Conroy as Mercutio and Mark Saturno as Tybalt. Photo by Shane Reid

In high school I studied three Shakespearian texts in detail: The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. I had to do Romeo and Juliet twice – once in year eleven English, and once as a part of our Practitioner Study on Baz Lurhman for year twelve drama.

I didn’t like Romeo and Juliet. I think more so than anything, it suffered under endless repetition of the Lurhman film. Lurhman did not stand up for me at all under that year. And the fact that I royally screwed up that essay in that exam probably didn’t help matters much. The primary reasons I quote for not liking it is because the plot is really rather simple, and the fact that they are so young. You just want to yell at them to stop listening to the Eels and hanging around the Mall’s Balls and realise that the world at 13 is so much smaller than the world you will come to know.

My favourite version of Romeo AND Juliet is from the film Reefer Madness:

I think that that is my favourite probably says a lot for my feelings about it.  (Also, mildly distracting when lines in this production made me start singing this in my head…)

So because of this I haven’t really touched it, in any form, in four years.

I’m not really sure how to describe how I was feeling preparing for the State Theatre Company’s production. I knew I wasn’t a big fan of the script, but that allowed me to be excited to see how director Geordie Brookman and dramaturg Nicki Bloom would interpret it with six actors. I had read very bad reviews, and my couple of friends who had seen it weren’t fans, but Murray Bramwell of The Australian, along with a couple others, liked it. As an Ambassador I’ve been wearing my badges and putting up posters and talking up a show I hadn’t seen: what would I feel like about spruiking this if I found it disappointing?

I wanted desperately to like it. Firstly, because that is the attitude I try to have going into every production. To go into something expecting disappointment is, to be frank, stupid and a waste of time and energy. And secondly, because I very much admire many of the creative team, and I want to believe they put out pieces of high quality.

And then: I loved it. I really, really did. Not everyone in my group did; emotions were mixed. After telling a friend who had attended another night, he told me I had “sold out”. I refuse to be afraid to not like something (feeling guilt over writing as such is another issue I need to resolve), but I also refuse to be afraid to like something (or dislike something) when no-one else did.  If “selling out” means I get to enjoy theatre more than you, I am all for it.

I think it was a combination of Brookman’s direction and cast, and coming to this script at 21 rather than 17, but this production made me see things I had never even considered before, and I think I need to rethink my stance on the text.

In this production, Juliet doesn’t plot this elaborate fake death so she can be with Romeo, she does it because she is a scared, thirteen year old girl about to be married off to a man she hardly knows, and her abusive father won’t listen. It’s not about a consuming love for Romeo, but a consuming fear, and when she turns to Friar Laurence for advice, he decides to play god, and rather than supporting this girl, he mixes her into an elaborate game.

In Bloom and Brookman’s adaptation, the emphasis of the story has actually been taken off the romance, and put onto the characters as individuals. The conceit of the production – that the story is being re-enacted as the surviving characters try to make sense of what happened – is not adequately explained on the stage, but going in with that knowledge opens up the essential layer to Brookman’s work. The relationship of Romeo and Juliet was a secret to their families, thus the focus must necessarily be on the individuals.  This isn’t to say that as a couple they are ignored, the cast brings out some very tender moments in many pairings, but the focus has shifted.

Josephine Were as Juliet and Thomas Conroy as Romeo. Photo by Shane Reid

Removing the focus from the couples changes the intent behind their suicides: I no longer saw it as they were killing themselves over lost love, but they themselves were so lost, so young, and so inwardly focused, that when they found their plans to escape their lives were destroyed, they did not have the age nor the foresight to see that things can get better. They committed suicide because they thought they had no where else to go in their lives, not because they were so in love.

Combined with the more malicious actions of the Friar, almost using these two children to teach their families a lesson, this made me re-evaluate the blame in the text. What happened wasn’t the fault of two feuding families. They planted the seeds, but it was Friar Laurence who drove it to the ultimate destruction. And not only were we aware of this in the audience, but he felt it, too. And the remorse, as played out by Mark Saturno, was much greater than I have ever seen it.

For Brookman to show me something new out of a 400-year-old text, especially one which is so ingrained in our culture, is wonderful.

Within the conceit of the surviving characters re-enacting the story, each of the cast play one character, and are then extrapolated into other roles. Thus, the story is told through Lady Montague (Michaela Cantwell), Price Escalus (Thomas Conroy), Capulet (Terence Crawford), Friar Laurence (Saturno), Benvolio (Roman Vaculik), and Lady Capulet (Josephine Were).

The device of having multiple actors play characters isn’t always entirely successful, but when it works, it is extraordinary. It works least successfully in the character of the nurse, as her character is rather stagnant throughout Shakespeare’s text, and each actor brings a radically different interpretation. It is most successful in Juliet, where changes in actor signify a change in the focus of Juliet’s drive. From the young naïvety of Cantwell’s Juliet (and it is the youngest I have ever seen her interpreted) to the fear and intensity of Conroy’s, the fact that each actor brings their own interpretation to the character of Juliet, and likewise Romeo, while working off the same base character, works.

The other moment when it works to extraordinary effect is not focused on the characters, but rather focused on the actors. In particular, Conroy is a remarkable find: vehement in Mercutio, tender in Juliet, with an obvious appreciation for the craft of acting for the theatre. Watching him, particularly as such a young actor, as he transforms from role to role is an incredible treat.

The interplay of set, by Pip Runciman, and lighting, by Geoff Cobham, creates a set which is simple in its adaptability.  Sheets roll up to reveal balconies, streetlights appear, and a crucifix of the church takes many forms.  Lighting is angular and sharp, working to great effect when narrowing down the focus and intensity on the stage, although at times the execution is shaky.  Structural items of the set were recreated in the shadows of the lighting, and shadows and interplay between light and dark in both set and lights add to the tension of the piece.  Primarily a very dark piece, the back cyc reveled through differing placement of the segmented back wall – a horizontal line, a vertical line, the crucifix – is lit in a brilliant red and blue.

The Opening Scene. Photo by Shane Reid.

I’m not going to lie: my favourite part of the set was the vomitory ramps.  I didn’t notice them at first, as I was sitting in the front block of seats and they were off to my sides, but when I did I got way too excited.  It has been 15 years since they have been used in the Playhouse, so if I have seen them I don’t remember, and it wouldn’t have been important.  I am very much in favour of many return seasons, especially if used as well as Brookman does here, not only as another point of entry/exit to the stage, but also an occasional playing space.

The one design feature which seemed to jar for me was lightbulb filled coffins at the end – while a pretty effect, seemed to be an overly indulgent choice, to which I couldn’t see a point, but in serving to remind us how much Cobham likes lightbulbs (even if I love his lightbulbs, too).

Lightbulbs for everyone! The Flying Dutchman (State Opera SA), Metro Street (State Theatre SA), Tanja Liedtke’s construct (Performing Lines)

The delicately balanced music, by Andrew Howard, also contributes to the lighting play between light and dark, moving from brooding darkness to a pleasant lilt, and much like Cobham’s angular lighting, serves to focus in on the intensity of the text.  One moment during the play I had to think “where do I know this music from?” and it was through the beautiful trailer for the show, from the folks at Projector Films.

So, that is my story of why I didn’t like Romeo and Juliet, yet I loved romeo&juliet, and this production made me appreciate it so much.  I can see why this production wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea: it takes big risks, and in the hands of a lesser cast and creative team they may not be successful, but here I think they certainly are.   I think it’s fine for people to not like it, just as it is fine for me to love it.

But, the idea that Shakespeare somehow needs to be protected, and that’s why you don’t like it, is ludicrous. Yes, he is an amazing and revered writer, but that doesn’t mean a) you shouldn’t try to do something new, and b) he was a writer free of problems. He has a whole collection of scripts that are referred to as the Problem Plays!  This is going back to an old debate on another matter, but Shakespeare’s text shouldn’t be free from criticism because it is a classic.  And he is dead – I really don’t think he cares what you are doing to his work.  The world of theatre would be in a much lesser place if Shakespeare was only done in the time and place it was set, and these productions would be just as likely to fail as any other.

I love it when theatre takes risks and takes me on a journey I had never considered before.  That it what I want to get, and Brookman delivered that.

After the show, I of course attended the Red Carpet party which was buckets of fun.  Pink champagne makes everything better, even if I did feel like a five year old ordering her pink lemonade.  Fun music, dress-ups for the “photo booth”, and mini-cupcakes were the icing on top of a wonderful night.  I heard nothing but good news back about the party from my friends, and many requests for invites to the 2011 Red Carpet Season Launch – which will be held in the Banque in North Adelaide Oct 14.  I hope I can see you there!

State Theatre Company of South Australia presents romeo&juliet by William Shakespeare, adapted by Nicki Bloom and Geordie Brookman.  Directed by Geordie Brookman, dramaturgy by Nicki Bloom, design by Pip Runciman, lighting design by Geoff Cobham with assistant lighting designer Ben Flett, composition and sound design by Andrew Howard, movement by Larissa McGowan.  With Michaela Cantwell, Thomas Conroy, Terence Crawford, Mark Saturno, Roman Vaculik, and Josephine Were.