Romeo and Juliet
Sydney Theatre Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 1 November 2013.
Review by Penny Gay.
Kip Williams, one of the new generation of exploratory young theatre directors who are making waves in Sydney and Melbourne, was offered the chance to do his first Shakespeare play by the Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director Andrew Upton. As Upton explains, ‘it is a young person’s play, offering opportunities in the lead roles for young emerging actors, and, in the energy of its story, a close connection for [Williams] and his design team.’ There’s an admirable fearlessness about Williams’s production, very similar to that which informs Simon Stone’s Hamlet currently playing at the other major Sydney theatre, Belvoir St.
Both directors have cut and rearranged the text, and removed a large number of ‘unnecessary’ characters, reassigning their lines to one of the remaining main characters. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the cast comprises the two leads, the Capulet parents, the Nurse, Friar Laurence, Tybalt, Paris, Mercutio, and Benvolio. With a great deal of frenetic action on the wide Drama Theatre stage, imaginatively using its revolve – the opening glimpses of a riotous party scene included swinging from the chandelier – one hardly notices that the original speaking cast of at least 26 characters has been reduced by over fifty percent. Old Capulet, for example – not so old in the person of an overbearing and virile Colin Moody – is a figure of authority right up to the last scene, speaking the Prince’s lines and even banishing Romeo. This naturally reinforces the production’s central interest in the revolt of the young against patriarchal power. As Upton summarises, ‘this production has reframed the play around the generation gap, most explicitly between that of the wishes of Lord Capulet for his daughter and her own conflicting desires.’ Lady Capulet, a striking study by Anna Lise Phillips, is an abused token wife, fixed into her tight couture gowns and with no will left to object to her husband’s brutality towards herself and her daughter.
In this slimmed-down version Juliet emerges as the focal figure. Played by Eryn Jean Norvill in a wonderfully passionate and detailed performance, she is ‘smart, strong, serious and eloquent’ as Rebecca Whitton in Australian Stage Online put it. Juliet opens the play before the curtain, with a version of the prologue – and closes it, shockingly, with the Prince’s final speech. She is not yet dead, but has a pistol in her hand with which she has finally cowed her bullying father. She might, we infer, shoot herself after this final utterance to the audience – or she might not. She will make a fully-informed choice, as she has done throughout the play.
Whereas Juliet has all her speeches (and more), Romeo’s are somewhat diminished in the play’s second half by the omission of the Apothecary dialogue and much of the preliminaries to his death in the Capulets’ monument. Interestingly, he is for once given all his lines in the opening scene with his friends discussing his Petrarchan passion for Rosaline: the production clearly wanted to emphasise his callow and moody youth (and undergraduate literary pretensions) by comparison with the natural charm, eloquence, and assurance of Juliet.
The play’s other authority figure is Friar Laurence (Mitchell Butel), younger than usual, very much the modern ‘cool’ clergyman, seen swanning bare-chested around his garden in his opening scene, though later more conventionally dressed in jeans, jacket, and clerical collar. His greatest moment of authority – and a wonderfully strong image on which to end the first half – is a re-written wedding scene. It begins with ‘Let me not to the marriage of two minds’, not quite completing the sonnet but morphing into a version of St Paul’s discourse on love in the letter to the Corinthians, very much in the manner of modern secular wedding ceremonies. The production is making a point here: it resonates interestingly with the current Australian national debate about gay marriage. This is a commitment between lovers, nothing to do with law and patriarchal tradition.
Of the play’s young men, Mercutio (Eamon Farren) and Benvolio (Akos Armont) impress with their ease with the verse and the production’s energetic movement patterns. Romeo (Dylan Young) seems to have been deliberately cast as less clever and sophisticated, and distinctly scruffier – a directorial decision that works against the play’s central chemistry. Eryn Jean Norvill is such a charismatic Juliet that one hardly notices the deficiencies in the object of her passion. Still, it makes for a strangely unmoving final scene if Romeo cannot wring our hearts with ‘Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty …’ This scene takes place with a striking reveal by designer David Fleischer, which has the Capulets’ monument as a huge room full of identical white double beds, on one of which lies Tybalt and on another Juliet. Romeo has almost to squeeze his way between the empty beds.
The emotional effect of the final scenes is not helped by Alan John and Nate Edmondson’s sound design. It works well in the production’s lively first half, matching the quick changes of place and pace enabled by the double revolving walls with their seemingly random doors. But in the second half, they have provided ambient music of a vaguely portentous nature, which never stops, accompanying every word and gesture. It almost seems that the director has lost faith in the eloquence and strength of Juliet that drive his interpretation of the play. Silence, with only the play’s words now telling the story, would have been preferable.
Both the Belvoir Hamlet and this Romeo and Juliet eschewed tragic emotion in the play’s last moments for a thought-provoking and radically re-jigged finale. It’s as if the young directors are saying, ‘You know this play, it’s one of the most famous in our culture. But have you thought about it, about what it might mean for twenty-first century people?’ A commendable impulse – I hope we see more such.