Romeo and Juliet is so famous as the archetype of tragic romance that it’s almost impossible to watch a production without being accompanied by the ghost of every production you’ve seen before. Most focus on the ecstatic love between the star-crossed lovers. Peter Evans’s new Romeo and Juliet for Bell Shakespeare attempts to strike new ground with a production that is in turns comic and tragic, and which favours the relatable over the transcendent.
Evans notes that although Shakespearean tragedies usually end in death and comedies in marriage, Romeo and Juliet, in an unusual cross-pollination of genres, contains both. His resulting production is an intriguing hybrid of emotional tones that makes the lovers’ story both more – and less – believable.
Plausibility has always been my stumbling block and point of fascination for Romeo and Juliet. Make the story believable and you have the epic tale of a love so ablaze that – at mere first sight – it can melt generations of hatred and will choose death over separation. But any failure to make the audience suspend disbelief leaves us with, at best, absurd storytelling and at worst a sad portrait of psychological dysfunction and child abuse: two teenagers who impulsively marry then die within four days.
The most famous versions of Romeo and Juliet use world-building to help us suspend our disbelief, creating a setting that from the outset pits the young lovers against overbearing social forces. In this hostile context, trapped in a crucible of love and despair, unthinkable choices become the only viable options.
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film version, Romeo + Juliet, achieved this by creating a Verona that was so technicoloured, so larger-than-life in its speed, hyperactivity and violence, that a four-day marriage and suicide made complete sense. Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1968 film was like a gorgeous fairytale, in which we could expect characters to follow extreme story arcs. The famous 1957 Broadway retelling, West Side Story, relocated the lovers to a Manhattan boiling over with historically based racial tension and gang violence. Even the completely wordless ballet version communicates volumes through Sergei Prokofiev’s masterful 1940 score. Listen to his remarkable “Dance of the Knights”, relentless in its foreboding, and you don’t need a single Shakespearean word to tell you that disobedience was not in the Montague or Capulet vocabulary.
So where does Peter Evans’s new production fall on this scale? As it turns out – not quite at either end of the spectrum. Rather than focusing on making the characters’ actions believable in the context of their environment – he dispenses entirely with the opening physical brawl that usually establishes the family feud – Evans emphasises the relatability of the characters themselves. But this creates problems in the second half, when that same relatability makes their tragic choices seem jarringly out of character.
Jacob Warner’s Romeo and Rose Riley’s Juliet are very obviously Millennials, and their first meeting looks like something you’d see at a house party. I felt like I’d rounded a corner – plastic beer cup in hand – and stumbled on a meet-cute. Their dialogue is not delivered as the traditional epiphany of breathless, lovestruck awe but as comic, self-aware flirtation – an excited, cautious exploration via animated banter that, to Warner and Riley’s credit, draws frequent laughs.
Warner brims with goofy larrikinism. He hides from Benvolio (Kyle Morrison) and Mercutio (Blazey Best) by attempting to camouflage himself with the floor, leaving the audience in stitches. You know Warner’s Romeo – he’s that guy who always took the back seat on the school bus, the class clown during maths, who looked weird in too much hair gel at the school formal, whom you might see walking on the main street in his black T-shirt and silver neck chain.
Riley is recognisable too. Her Juliet is not the naive, ethereal beauty she is often portrayed as but a sharply grounded modern woman. This earthiness gives Juliet’s lines a different flavour to their traditional characterisation. Her words contain nature-based imagery not because she is poetic and lyrical but because such language is a natural extension of her earthiness. When she begins her Act III soliloquy – “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds” – you feel that hot-bloodedness emanates from Juliet herself in a real, raw sense.
And you know Lord Capulet (James Evans) because his Act I “Welcome, gentlemen!” speech is delivered – in a stroke of comic genius – with jokey bluster into a cheap microphone, making him instantly recognisable as karaoke dad, wedding-speech dad, or Saturday sports coach dad.
The most engaging characterisation – and one of the most impressive performances of the night – is Lucy Bell as Juliet’s Nurse. The Nurse is often played as pure comic relief, bumbling and two-dimensional, but Bell brings warmth, depth and complexity to the role. Her Nurse rambles not because she’s a fool, but because her love for Juliet is so genuine it can’t help but overflow. As with the others, Bell’s Nurse evokes typical urban Australian memories – she behaves like the teacher’s aide at your kindergarten, the nice canteen lady who’d slip you an extra sour worm, or the chatty neighbour who was friends with your mum.
The other characters are less familiar but still intriguing. Robert Menzies, an experienced Shakespeare player, performs Friar Laurence with more traditional stylisation. Monica Sayers is similarly conservative as Lady Capulet. Blazey Best, cast across gender as Mercutio, is a hurricane of swaggering energy and provocative comebacks, although for those less familiar with Shakespearean language her fast-paced delivery might obscure some of the words. Also minimised in Evans’s retelling is the deep bond between Mercutio and Romeo. Best’s Mercutio seems like a friend whose outspoken presence and constant sneering Romeo merely tolerates, making his revenge-killing of Tybalt (Leinad Walker) in Act III a little less credible.
Alex King is also cast gender-blind as Paris, and is wonderfully refreshing in the role. Rather than adopting the traditional characterisation of Paris as an overprivileged villain, King’s Paris is genuinely devoted to Juliet, rendering his vigil and death in the Capulet crypt doubly poignant. King cleverly prompts you to be curious about Paris’s backstory – for how long has he loved Juliet, and is his love as tragically thwarted as Romeo’s?
This focus on characterisation is assisted by Anna Tregloan’s minimalist design. The set is simple: two shining black platforms separated by a space that becomes symbolic of the gulf between the Montagues and the Capulets, between love and separation. Cast members occasionally roll out scarlet Persian rugs for visual interest but there are few other distractions. Tregloan’s costumes too are minimalist, consisting mostly of uncomplicated contemporary black clothing.
This sense of believable relatability dissolves after intermission when the play’s emotional tone abruptly shifts gears. The intermission softens the transition but, even so, the change is jarring. The dialogue is no longer delivered for laughs. James Evans’s karaoke dad is nowhere to be seen – his Lord Capulet has transformed, seemingly overnight, into the more conventional bullying Shakespearean patriarch. Sharp daggers inexplicably appear in Friar Laurence’s cell and Romeo and Juliet are suddenly using them to threaten self-harm.
At this point, Warner’s earlier larrikinism clashes with the now tragic story. Can we really believe that Romeo, the class clown who only a few days before was playing Spotto with Benvolio in the Capulet orchard, would really be capable of murdering Tybalt and then dying by suicide? Warner delivers the tragedy well – his Romeo, sitting desolate in Friar Laurence’s cell, has all the despair of a teenager held in a police station. But he navigates the transition only by morphing into a different character.
Only Bell’s and Riley’s performances seem to survive the tonal shift in one piece: Bell’s Nurse because her love for Juliet is so well portrayed that it adapts believably to Juliet’s changing circumstances, and Riley’s Juliet because she is so grounded it’s conceivable that her original devotion to Romeo has sufficient depth to endure to death.
In Shakespeare’s prologue, the narrator famously tells us that the play is about “Two households, both alike in dignity”. Evans’s production gives us two halves belonging to two plays: one a thoroughly enjoyable comedy and the other a less plausible tragedy. The result, if slightly jarring, is nonetheless deeply thought-provoking about what makes this Shakespearean classic so enduring.
VISUAL ART Always Modern
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Country/Bulleen, until February 4
His Majesty’s Theatre, Boorloo/Perth, July 20-29
VISUAL ART Thin Skin
MUMA, Naarm/Melbourne, July 20–September 23
MUSICAL Mary Poppins
Adelaide Festival Centre, Kaurna Country/Adelaide, until August 27
Museum of Brisbane, Meanjin/Brisbane, until October 22
Sydney Opera House, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until July 15
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2023 as "Two plays alike".
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