The first order of business was to find the place. Kangaroo Point. Our two weeks in Australia were enough to teach us that we wouldn’t, alas, be greeted by a troop of hopping ‘roos upon arrival, but it didn’t stop us imagining a magical neighborhood as we motored, on bus 475, across the city to our home for the evening.
We knew when we were there. Chatting friends congregated on the sidewalk outside the ACPA building, with further crowds filling the car park. A mix of ease and anticipation lingered in the air – the familiarity of those used to coming to a place each week, of running into one another as they drop off children, sisters, friends, cousins – and the slightly edgy, happy excitement of those here for the first time, who have heard about something in the papers, mapped it out at home, and embarked on a journey, for one night at least, into the new. We, of course, were the latter.
The production began with with a cloud of noise – a cast of roughly two dozen speaking simultaneously, one voice on top of the other, with different strands of Shakespeare’s star-crossed verse rushing out from the trees, balconies, windows, doorways abutting and overlooking the eager crowd drawing together in the spacious parking lot below. Ten minutes or so passed – enough for proud family members to identify, admire, and photograph their performing loved ones – before we were ushered into the covered, concrete car park under the building. Capulets to one side of the stage and Montagues to the other, with wooden staffs clashing to the ground in unison to punctuate the young fighters’ threats. Old Montague (Jeremy Ambrum) emerged from the tustle to comically disrupt the scene, his age – and, consequently, his otherness in this drama of youth – signaled by his exaggerated, clowning hunch and an anonymising, carnivalesque mask.
When Romeo appeared, and later Juliet, we were reminded, forcefully, of the youthfulness of the play – both in the lines as the actors spoke them, as well as in their very persons, young, fresh, and vital as they all were. The lead roles were shared between several actors, with a white shirt over the ensemble’s standard black costume denoting the young lovers at any given time. The Romeos (Tibian Wyles, Jeremy Ambrum, Benjamin Creek, Leonard Donohue) bounded with energy and enthusiasm, scaling and jumping a chain link fence at the back of the stage in a matter of seconds when needed, as well as bounding up a good nine feet of the ACPA’s brick building in order to savor a final kiss from Juliet in the balcony scene. The Juliets (Haylee Rivers, Kaleenah Edwards, Jadene Croft, Emily Wells) matched their lovers’ physical passion with emotional intensity, probing the depths of feeling in a young woman (not yet fourteen, this dramatically cut version of the script still reminded us) rapidly coming to know herself. Perhaps most remarkable theatrically was our Mercutio (Sean Dow), who delivered his lines with a clarity, intelligence, and confidence that belied the actor’s young years. When he asked us to go with him, back into the uncovered parking lot for the balcony scene, we immediately followed.
The first half of the production followed Shakespeare’s plotting and dialogue with little deviation, filleting dialogue but not scenes, but the second half made more dramatic interventions. Juliet’s ‘gallop apace’ speech was delivered giddily and parodically by a male actor in drag, skipping frantically around the stage, and from this point forward the production lurched towards its inevitable end. After the lovers took their leave of one another, wishing for the nightingale but admiting the morning lark, a montage of lines from the play’s final acts came together to finish the story. Most strikingly, Friar Lawrence’s speech from act 5, so often cut, was delivered as a voiceover to narrate the lovers’ deaths, a scene that was left unperformed. For the first time in my wide experience of seeing this play in performance, the image of Romeo and Juliet slumped together in death did not impose itself upon the experience of witnessing them join together in life. By presenting the drama’s conclusion in narrative, rather than visual and theatrical form, the production seemed to invite us to think of the young lovers as still living, loving, and thriving.
When the cast, and director, and student helpers, and pro-bono lighting company took to the stage for a group bow, the audience cheered, held up camera phones, waived to friends. And when the performance finally concluded, curtain call and all, the evening ended as it began, with a sea of people clustered into groups that encircled and hugged their young performers, said hello to one another, headed off for more fun for the evening. The cast quickly stacked the improvised theatre’s chairs, eager to begin the post-performance part of their evening, and we congratulated the director and a few actors that strayed our way. Eventually we headed back into the night and to the 475 bus, knowing that we had not only seen a remarkable production of a remarkable play, but that we had witnessed, and for a brief time also been a part of, a remarkable community doing remarkable things.
You can see more photographs from the production here.