Romeo and Juliet, Bell Shakespeare Company @ Sydney Opera House Playhouse, 2016Tragedy

  • Penny Gay

Romeo and Juliet, Bell Shakespeare Company @ Sydney Opera House Playhouse, 7 March 2016

Reviewed by Penny Gay

Juliet balcony

Kelly Paterniti as Juliet in the balcony scene. Photo: Daniel Boud

Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, touring to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, is the first production by Peter Evans in his role as the new artistic director – though he has worked in the company alongside founding director John Bell for several years. To put the stamp of newness on the show, Evans (or the PR team) has made much of doing it in ‘traditional’ costume, rather than the standard Bell riff on contemporaneity. Evans’s argument is that a whole generation of Australian theatre-goers has only ever seen the play in the ‘jeans and t-shirts’ style favoured by most modern directors, and that reminding the playgoers of the world from which this story came could be illuminating and refreshing.

In practice, of course, it doesn’t work like that; and Evans admits a more nuanced view in his programme note: ‘we have created a world that is a stage on a stage. And the costumes are reminiscent of the time when the play was written, evoking the theatricality and drama of the world Romeo and Juliet inhabit.’ I’m not sure that this actually helps the historically naïve young playgoers of today. Anna Cordingley’s costumes reproduce with a very modern eye some lines and fabrics that are familiar from aristocratic paintings of the 16th century. The women, in particular, are corseted and farthingaled in dresses of elaborate fabric – which they never change, despite the clearly signalled procession of day-night-day-night action of the play’s domestic and civic drama. Nurse (Michelle Doake) is always in her Sunday best; Lady Capulet (Angie Milliken) even more so, splendid in a flame-coloured frock, always ready for a feast, it seems. Juliet (Kelly Paterniti) matches her mother’s colours, but at least gets down to her farthingale and long drawers in the bedroom scene (one feels for Romeo!); and then goes to shrift in a gorgeous orange evening cloak – and bare feet. The boys fare a little better, as their tight black trousers and boots are simply topped by ruffled shirts and the sort of waisted brocade jackets favoured by 80s rock singers. That is, they don’t look anything other than vaguely late-twentieth-century, party mode: comfortable territory for modern viewers.

Cordingley’s set is similarly hybridised. At stage left, there is an obliquely placed tall and narrow baroque proscenium arch, complete with a large painterly drape slung over the frame; actors enter onto a small thrust platform. At stage right, there is scaffolding supporting an array of three ‘balcony’ boxes, as in an older theatre, but in style more Art Deco. The scaffolding, though handy for the boys to show off their athleticism, has to be ducked under by anyone on that side of the stage (it is about 5 feet high at the first level), and one is distracted by the possibility of a cracked skull. What does this obtrusive set signify? Are we in 16th-century Verona, or a theatre reflecting 400 years of performance? We’re certainly not in Australia or the 21st century. How do we relate to what we’re seeing?

Then there is the lighting (designed by Benjamin Cisterne). Evans rightly emphasises that much of the play’s action takes place at night – and that night-time in the 16th century was considerably darker than it is today. Pools of illumination are provided by the actors carrying lightboxes (with – presumably – electronic candles flickering inside). I couldn’t help feeling that Evans or his designers had recently been to the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in London and been enchanted by its use of candles. However, in a theatre which, though small, is not as intimate as the Wanamaker, it is often far too difficult to see exactly who is speaking.

Altogether, I was distracted by the design concept – and by the emphasis on it in pre-publicity – to the point where the story seems to have got muffled. That is not to disparage some very fine speaking of the lines – some of the best I have heard recently in Shakespeare either in Australia or elsewhere, simply because the actors clearly were not afraid of the language and spoke it at a pace that allowed it to be heard and understood – not gabbling, but not artificially stressed either. Chops to voice coach Jess Chambers; may she find frequent employment here! Not all the actors reached this standard, but almost all the men did (all, of course, using their natural Australian accents). The three women employed very different speaking styles – Michelle Doake giving a lovely broad-comedy Nurse with many realistic tics; Angie Milliken employing her characteristic somewhat foggy contralto; and Kelly Paterniti unfortunately (in my view) directed to raise her voice into a high nasal soprano and ignore the poetry, to imitate the realistic but profoundly irritating young-teen sound of contemporary Australia. Given that Juliet’s role is the third-longest female role in Shakespeare, and that she exhibits astonishing eloquence as the story develops, this was an unfortunate choice. All one heard, for much of the time, was the teenager in the shopping mall chattering with her friends.

So, despite the publicity, this was by no means a ‘traditional’ production – and we all know that had they actually played the show ‘traditionally’, boredom and disconnection would have been the result. It is the actors’ job to tell a story that resonates now, and I couldn’t help feeling that too many visual and conceptual obstacles had been put in their way for them to achieve what they might have. There was general agreement that the two principal roles lacked chemistry. Both Alex Williams (Romeo) and Kelly Paterniti are fine young actors, and I think more could have been done to allow them to get the chemistry flowing.

An acclaimed highlight of the evening was the fight between Mercutio (Damien Strouthos) and Tybalt (Tom Stokes); choreographed by the great Nigel Poulton, it went on for at least five gripping minutes, and was the most dangerous and exciting stage fencing duel I have ever seen. One didn’t really see the moment when Romeo came between them, one just realised that something had gone horribly wrong between these two experienced fighters – as will happen, despite great expertise, in a culture of violence.

For me, the litmus test of a production of Romeo and Juliet is whether I tear up at Romeo’s famous lines, ‘O my love, my wife, / Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, / Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty …’. I didn’t, despite the excellence of Williams’s speaking of the lines. Why? Ultimately my attention was still distracted by the over-elaborate set and the solutions to the problem of how to represent the Capels’ monument. Reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Blake, hit the nail on the head:

So where are we? Who are these people? Are we watching actors playing Romeo and Juliet or does this stage-on-a-stage conceit somehow suggest we are watching actors playing actors playing Romeo and Juliet?

It feels meta for its own sake and it puts an invisible, inscrutable screen between audience and drama.

‘Meta for its own sake’ is only going to appeal to a very small and sophisticated section of the audience (and, I suspect, of the actors). The rest will be hoping for the return of Bell’s characteristic Australian Shakespeare – continuing its more than 25 years’ tradition of telling stories that resonate with Australian culture.

Penny Gay

Author: Penny Gay

Penny Gay is Professor Emerita in English and Drama at the University of Sydney. Her major research interest is in performance history, in particular contemporary revivals of Shakespeare and other classics. Her publications include As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women (1994), The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies (2008), Teaching Shakespeare Beyond the Centre: Australasian Perspectives (edited with LE Semler and Kate Flaherty, 2013), and Jane Austen and the Theatre (2002). Her academic journal articles have appeared in US, UK and Australian publications, and she has written programme notes for theatre companies including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Opera Australia, and the Sydney Theatre Company. She is our Associate Editor for Australia.