Macbeth doth come

Macbeth (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Fringe Brisbane Hub

November 11 – 27

“Blood will have blood,” a haunted Macbeth proclaims in Act III of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, knowing that he will have to suffer for his actions. Blood not only represents guilt for Macbeth and his Lady, but is a constant presence as one of the play’s primary motifs. While there is no visual bloodshed in Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of one of the Bard’s darkest tragedies, there is no doubting the disturbance of its storyline or resonance of its themes around loyalty, fate and other such weighty subjects. The production is still full of the violence that is such a big part of “Macbeth” and Shakespeare in general; even just allusion to the repercussions of regicide, the murders of men, women and children, suicide and wartime battle serves as a reminder that its every violent act leads inevitably to the next.  And the company’s focus, instead, on the linguistic richness of the text, only adds to the intrigue and tension of the storytelling.

There may be no blood, or air-drawn dagger of the mind, but there is the ghost of Macbeth’s brave and noble best friend to plague the Thane’s guilt-ridden thoughts, and also the otherly witches to remind audiences of the darkness of the supernatural tones so integral to its Jacobean context. From their first appearance in the savage play’s opening scene where they grow out of a storm in plan to meet the triumphant warrior Macbeth after battle, the weird sisters (Crystal Arons, Leah Mustard and Ellen Hardisty, who projects a particular eeriness in her chanting tones) beguile us they speak and move in complement, soon telling in the song-like rhythm of rhyming couplets, of their hail of Macbeth (QSE’s Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini) as predicted Thane of Glamis, Cawdor and Scottish King hereafter.

The magic, murder and mayhem continues from this mysterious scene and despite some sudden lighting cues, shadows are used well to emphasise, as much as establish, mood, such as in Lady Macbeth’s (Rebecca Murphy) Act One soliloquies, when, in response to hearing in letter of Macbeth’s promotion to the Thaneship of Cawdor and detail of his meeting with the witches, she resolves to convince her husband to do whatever is required to realise his vaulting ambition and seize the crown from the visiting respected King Duncan (a fittingly authoritarian Mikala Crawley).

Attention to detail is evident throughout the production. Costumes are textured with feathers, leather and layering, and are themed in colour and patterned accents… Duncan and his eldest son Malcolm (Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn) in gold and the Macbeths in maroon until the gold garments are also usurped. And just as Macbeth is referred to only as tyrant after the climatic banquet scene (interestingly appearing immediately after interval), we no longer spot him in regal robes from this point.

Care is also taken to ensure that characterisastion does not compromise the high thematic stakes. The Macbeths that Pensalfini and Murphy enliven are multifaceted, showing shades of being both a power-hungry warrior and Machiavellian murderess and also grief-stricken parents with a painful void to fill. And the phases of their respective character journeys are clearly defined. Pensalfini uses the non-verbals of widened eyes of disbelief as he methodically considers the supernatural soliciting of the initial prophecies of the instruments of darkness, contemplating the appeal of the prospect of power, rather than its promise. It is a wonderful initial insight into Macbeth’s inner thoughts that is emphasised by his then commanding stage presence in the character’s ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ contemplation of what he should do and then frenzied rather than considered response to the sudden appearance of a spectral dagger as potential marshal towards murder. And his delivery of Macbeth’s poignant final soliloquy’s reflection of life’s lack of meaning is a heartfelt and thus moving contemplation.

Pensalfini and Murphy both clearly have a natural grasp of Shakespearean language, delivering their dialogue as if it was modern English, complete with meaningful emphasis and emotional undertones. This works well, especially against the relatively stark staging of the Fringe Brisbane Hub’s intimate pop-up space, to bring audience members into the action. Murphy’s Lady Macbeth is also finessed by the contrast of her character arc. She begins by giving us a formidable character that serves as reminder of how without his fierce female characters, Shakespeare is nothing. Her ruthless, in-control provocation to have Macbeth commit treason, is beautifully contrasted with her later appearances when increasingly consumed by madness.

Angus Thorbuns is powerful in his performance as Macbeth’s foil, the passionately-patriotic Thane of Fife, Macduff and although Macduff’s cousin Ross is a minor character in the play, Rebekah Schmidt brings a gravitas to his messenger role. Joanne Booth does double duty (and deaths) as Lady Macduff and Banquo. As the loyal and protective Lady, furious at her husband for fleeing the country for England to urge rightful-heir Malcolm to retake the Scottish throne by force, she contributes to the particularly strong scene of her character’s only appearance. The brutal scene is often cut in modern performance, however, is important for its illustration of the depths of Macbeth’s butcherous depravity, and its inclusion not only achieves this, but serves as a testament to the ensemble skills.

Director Angela Witcher gives audiences a relatively straightforward production of “Macbeth”; Shakespeare’s language is delivered with clarity, which aids understanding, while the plotting is also clear. This is, surprisingly, the first time that a staged production of “Macbeth” doth come to Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble and the company’s presentation of the dark psychological thriller not only reminds audiences as to the robustness of its story, but does so in a way that makes it accessible even to those without detailed familiarity with the original text.

Although “Macbeth” is already a tight play by Shakespeare standards, plot edges have been trimmed with the elimination of, for example, younger son of King Duncan, Donalbain. Drama and action are not, however, compromised, as is evidently clear in its final impressive physical battle, vigorous sword-fight and all. And the humour of Tenielle Plunkett’s comic-relief porter scene has a modern touch that is appreciated by the responsive opening night audience, which serves as a good reminder of how this classic of the canon of English literature still holds so much for so many interpretations.

Photos c/o – Benjamin Prindable Photography

When woe wins

Shakespeare Pick and (re)Mix (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Elements Collective

October 14 – 21

Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet walk into a bar… but only grouping gets to stay. Last week the great Dane’s play-within-a-play persuasion saw Fringe Brisbane audiences experiencing the hijinks of a bite-sized “Hamlet”, however, in the second outing of Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Shakespeare Pick and (re)Mix”, it is the Bard’s best (and well known) story of woe that is to be the 30 minutes or so traffic of the stage.

A half-hour tragedy obviously requires a lot of cuts, which occur mostly in exposition. In Rob Pensalfini’s adaption of “Romeo and Juliet”, there is still a Queen Mab mention and a more straight-talking balcony scene thanks to Leah Fitzgerald Quinn’s forthright representation of the only daughter of the never seen Lord Capulet. The play’s iconic lines are also all still there, with a deliberate play up of their bawdiness in any other part belonging to a man et al mentions. While she does double duty as the Prince of Cats Tybalt, Rebecca Murphy is brilliant as Juliet’s maternal servant nurse, obviously fond of talking at length and lewd in her references to love. And Rebekah Schmidt gives us an especially spirited ‘can I get an Amen’ Friar Lawrence, in addition to taking on role as the quick-witted Mercutio.

“Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,” Juliet implores in impatient wait for night to fall so that she can celebrate her wedding night with Romeo (Dudley Powell). The almost aside quote is particularly apt for inclusion in this drastically cut-down version of the classic of the English cannon, as it captures the approach fostered by Rebecca Murphy’s detailed direction. Things are sometimes quite frenzied as players swap in and out of roles, which even sees Fitzgerald Quinn’s switching from Juliet to then become Romeo’s manservant Balthazar to tell him of Juliet’s supposed death and offer to sell him some poison so that he can join Juliet in death in the Capulets’ burial vault. And the energy then crescendos theatre sports style as encores see the ensemble t giving us the story in three and then one minute tellings, to end in a hilarious triumph.

At show’s start, the audience is divided down the middle and allocated in allegiance to either Capulet or Montague, to cheer jeer and alike in response to on stage interactions between the two feuding Verona families. The result is lots of fun with literal “he’s behind you” and “look over there” type pantomime moments, as Elizabethan audience engagement would likely have been at the time of the play’s first presentation at The Globe … not to mention the cross dressing of Powell as Lady Capulet, costume malfunctions and all. Audience involvement is also easily integrated through volunteer participation in the story’s iconic masquerade ball dance, with musical accompaniment from Liliana Macarone and Angus Thorburn.  

All elements combine to make this “Romeo and Juliet” a very accessible bite-sized way into Shakespeare’s work. It’s all lots of fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It does, however, leave you wanting to see how the other options would have been handled and hope that though the QSE’s 2022 Fringe Brisbane run is over, we will hopefully see the show back again sometime in the future. In meantime, there always the Ensemble’s production on the Scottish play coming next month.

Moor makeover

Othello (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

September 10 – October 1

“Othello” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays given its question of beliefs around race and gender as part of its poignant commentary on the universality of the human condition. But with its challenges comes great potential, and it is a potential well and truly realised in Queensland Theatre’s outstanding production of the classic as part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival program. The company’s first production of the tragedy (which premiered in Cairns in 2021 after the COVID- cancellation of its intended 2020 Brisbane season) is an electric adaption that approaches the Shakespearean story from a uniquely-Queensland perspective, as Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein inject some Australian and Torres Strait Islander culture in a powerful tri-lingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) tapestry together of the two great storytelling traditions of Shakespeare and Wagadagam.

The complex work follows Othello (Jimi Bani), a Moorish army general who controversially marries Desdemona (Emily Burton), the white daughter of the Senator Brabantio (in this case a wealthy cane farmer played by Eugene Gilfedder) and how his mind is poisoned to the green-eye monster of jealousy over a fictitious affair between his wife and squadron leader Cassio (Benjin Maza), suggested by his manipulative and vengeful ensign Iago (Andrew Buchanan), who is angered by the fact that Othello has promoted Cassio before him. Rather than Renaissance Venice and Cyprus, this “Othello” is set between 1942 Cairns and the Torres Strait Islands in tribute to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and the 800 Torres Strait Islander men (including Jimi Bani’s great grandfather, the late Ephraim Bani Snr, and his grandfather, the late Solomon Gela) volunteered to protect the northern tip of Australia during World War II.

The assured storytelling that ensures from this pioneering approach makes the play accessible to all audience members, with Klarwein’s detailed direction positioning the audience to be immediately engaged in its narrative. The classic tale of jealousy, betrayal and revenge is an ultimately brutal story including blatant racism and scenes of domestic violence, yet Klarwein finds comedy in aspects of its telling, particularly in its early scenes as actor gestures and reactions not only bring Shakespeare’s words to life, but enrich them with emphasis of intended and incidental meanings. Iago’s use of mocking language when meeting his wife and Desdemona’s confidant Emelia (Sarah Ogden), not only tells us much their relationship from a gender politics perspective, but gives the audience some easy humour to which it can respond.

While some of the play’s beautiful, eloquent language is given over to levity, such as Othello’s declaration that he will not be destroyed by jealousy “for she had eyes and chose me”, there are still a number of lovely moments in this retelling, thanks to the play’s creatives. Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri’s costume design establishes Desdemona’s purity and innocence and Brady Watkin’s composition and sound design works with Richard Roberts’ set design to create some stunning imagery, such as when the sheer white curtains of the initially humble staging are moved aside to reveal a pool of water that becomes an integral part of scenes such as Othello’s physical response to Iago’s vivid descriptions of Desdemona’s alleged sexual infidelity. Ben Hughes’ lighting design, meanwhile, notably darkens things into the petty villain Iago’s soliloquy revelation of motiveless malignancy, drawing the audience into the character’s outline of his intention to be evened with the allegedly lusty Othello, ‘wife for wife’.  

Buchanan is brilliant as the Machiavellian Iago who drives the plot of the play. He not only regales in conveyance of the villain’s duplicitous nature, but he illustrates the intriguing character’s essential chameleon-ness as he adapts his manner and style of speaking to suit the differing circumstances of audience and purpose, using language to both manipulate others and disguise his true intentions while planting the seeds that grow into Othello’s paranoia. Whether bitterly brooding the emotionally-charged idea that Othello hath leaped into his seat bed and seduced Emilia abroad, alleging loyalty to Othello in assurance of his honesty and reluctance to implicate Desdemona and Cassio, or feigning friendship in counsel to Cassio to seek Desdemona’s help in getting reinstated after dismissal for fighting when drunk on duty, he is marvellous in show of Iago’s multi-faceted manipulations.

Bani, meanwhile, appropriately conveys Othello’s central humanity, which is essential to the play. The titular tragic hero is a meaty physical and emotional role and he fills it with both initial, purposeful authority and the passion of love’s hyperbolic extremes. He easily takes us on journey from powerful and respected Captain of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion through the torment of ‘knowing’ (rather than not) of Desdemona’s disloyalty to dignified but vulnerable comprehension of what he has done. His ‘put out the light’ soliloquy rationalisation of trying to save other men from Desdemona’s supposed infidelity is delivered to an absolutely silent, captivated audience and his final plea to ‘speak of me as… one who loved not wisely but too well,’ is a commanding elevation of one of the play’s most poignant moments.

Buchanan and Bani are as supported by a strong cast of players. Burton is the best she’s ever been as Desdemona. Not only is she passionate in the character’s love for Othello, which assures but also unnerves her husband in water of the seeds of his suspicion, but she strikes the delicate balance required to make the character dutiful, but also of some strength. Ogden is also praiseworthy as her worldlier friend and confidante, Emilia. Together, the duo credibly portrays a genuine friendship with their conversation in Desdemona’s preparation for bed highlighting their shared qualities more than their differences. And Maza’s Cassio is an audience favourite thanks to his cheeky more than courtly demeanour, especially in drunken assurance that he can stand and speak well enough.

Masterful handling of the story’s tragic twists and turns make experience of this “Othello” seem like less that its 2 hours 40-minute running time (including interval). Its weave together of Kala Lagaw Ya (one of the language of the Torres Strait), Youmpla Tok (Torres Strait Creole) and Shakespearean English is seamless. Meaning is never lost in transitions as each language is used to distinct effect, for example when flirty exchanges occur between Cassio and Bianca (Tia-Shonte Southwood) to both add some tonal levity and setup the scenario of Desdemona’s symbolic love token appearing in Cassio’s hands as the ocular proof evidence (in this case a gift from elders to Othello’s mother) of her supposed betrayal.

While its still-startling conclusion has been changed slightly, this “Othello” shows how many of the story’s themes around gender, difference, jealousy, ambition and love are still relevant today. And the reactions of those audience members new to the story serve as testament to the power of its retelling. It may have taken 52 years for the tale of Shakespeare’s Moor to make its way to the Queensland Theatre stage, but with a resounding opening night standing ovation through four curtain calls, it is clear that it has definitely been worth the wait.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Monster reimagining

KING LEAR MONSTER SHOW! (The Curators)

Christ Church Milton

May 18 – June 5

From the moment of entry into the heritage-listed Christ Church in Milton, it is obvious that there is a lot going on in the LearLand of The Curator’s latest offering. “KING LEAR MOSTER SHOW!” is a riotous exploration of dynastic struggles in a post democratic world and Beth Scott’s set design features are almost overwhelming in creation of the aesthetic of the epic 21st century fable. While an inventive iron milk crate and pool noodle fashioned throne sits back of stage, a silver mosaic collage of found objects features as an up-close-and personal dystopian signal to the tone of this far-from-classic tale of Shakespeare’s mad monarch. With ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’, we begin with a gasp from the titular king’s loyal and honest advocate, an effervescent Felinini-esque fool (Eleonora Ginardi) who asks about life before speaking in one of the play’s many tongues.  

One of Shakespeare’s more frequently performed tragedies, “King Lear”tells the story of the old and tired King Lear and his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. When Cordelia, his youngest and favourite daughter is unable to shower him with false affections like her scheming elder sisters, in a fit of rage he banishes her, breaking her heart in the process. What follows is Lear’s dramatic fall from grace – and into madness, alongside the plotting of the bastard Edmund and the honest and gullible legitimate child Edgar of Gloucester. Transformed into “KING LEAR MONSTER SHOW!”, it is a complex, intellectual experience – a behemoth of a morality tale of the heart, that despite its politics, is, as its core, a family saga. Accordingly, the production is all about character. And the characters are distinct from the beginning, thanks to Director and Costume Designer Michael Beh’s rich tapestry of costumes. It is all colour and moment as characters, stomp, prance or mope about in sequined splendour of leather, lace, velvet, feathers and found sparkles. The bold but detailed aesthetic is a characteristic of The Curator’s works, carefully carried through the lighting (Lighting Designer David Willis) in, for example, the signature green hues that hover over appearance of Lear’s villainous eldest daughter Goneril (Amanda McErlean), costuming and even the giant portrait paintings (from artist and designer Ronnie Walkefield) that adorn the walls around us.

Things continue through the extremes of emotion towards a scream into the ominously tense soundscape of interval, before Act Two returns to focus more on the grandstanding self-proclaimed villain-by-necessity Edmund (Willem Whitfield). It also provides platform for the production’s most impressive performances. Warwick Comber makes for a formidable figure as the leather-clad Lear, unable to to give or receive real love and affection and blind to his pettiness and the consequences of playing one’s family members off against one another. The ageing British monarch is one of the canonically great roles and Comber embraces it with gusto as he belches and bellows about in early scenes. As powerful as his vocal presence may be, however, his most commanding moments are in quieter times of more restraint, such as his early Act Two self-pitying reaction against the elements of the symbolic storm in reveal of his inner turmoil and mounting madness. As Lear’s loyal cousin Gloucester, Royal Duchess of the Blood, Julia Johnson is glorious in her interact with both son and bastard son, but especially when blinded. And Cameron Hurry is intoxicating, especially as sweary mad party animal Poor Tom, giving his all as he throws himself about the stage.  

As part of its transformation of the powerful tragedy, the play leans into the Bard’s bawdy innuendo. There are a number of highly sexualised moments, especially from whimsical bastard Edmund. Whitfield is very much a glam rock star as he Machiavellians about in enjoyment of his wonderful vengeful wickedness, kissing boys and girls alike. While the core of Shakespeare’s narrative remains relatively intact, the play builds upon this with commentary and extension of its character’s voices using western, European languages (Italian, French, German, Spanish) and excerpts of poetry from Dante, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats and Eliot. It is a lot and while this adds a layer of interest, and the projections of the translations are helpful, this overload sometimes detracts from overall cohesion in what is a long play of 2 hours and 20 minutes (including interval).

“If you see with innocent eyes, everything is divine,” distinctive Italian film director and screenwriter Frederico Fellini stated. It’s an oft-repeated quote in “KING LEAR MONSTER SHOW!” and an appropriate final comment from the wildly reimagined Fool, a reminder perhaps that, as audiences are reminded by a pre-show projection, ‘There is no future. There is no past’. There is, however, passion, and this is one of the things that resonates most from this work, which is visually dynamic and highly imaginative, even in how its tragic body count mounts. With such an avant-garde approach, however, it is perhaps best seen by those with some knowledge of Shakespeare’s source material, in order to fully appreciate not only its creativity, but its resonance across time and cultures.

Photos c/o – Naz Mulla Photography

Sigh no more maaate

Much Ado About Nuthink (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

April 16 – May 28

“Much Ado About Nuthink” is a classic tale of mischief and romance where ‘he said she said’ takes on a whole new meaning, all set in and around a modern-day Queensland country pub. The localised take on Shakespeare’s iconic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” takes place in the Royal Hotel, home and cosponsor of the league champion Messina Mongrels. And with a background soundtrack that includes Aussie classics like ‘Khe Sanh’ and ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ the Brisbane Arts Theatre production is very much Shakespeare, but not as you know it.

Things begin with the footy boys boistering back into town after their grand final victory, to be welcomed to the hotel by Leonato (Dominic Tennison), its licensee and president and of the local Chamber of Commerce. Heros on the footy field, halfback Claudio (Sebastian Woulff) and star player Benedick (Jayd Kafoa in his first production with Brisbane Arts Theatre) lead the charge into the comedy’s dual narratives, the young love of Claudio and Leonato’s sweet and virtuous daughter Hero (Leah Mustard) and the bickering-enemies-to-lovers story of Benedick and Beatrice (Natalie Shikongo). With the former halfback, the bastard Don John (Gautam Abhyankar) scheming to undermine his sister, Donna Pedro (Cathy Stanley), the local mayor, generous patron of the Mongrels and self-proclaimed matchmaker, the stage is set for a lot of fuss over intertwined misunderstandings and misleadings.  

The adaptation of William Shakespeare’s original text by director John Grey is effective and fits Shakespeare’s story nicely, even if it is more rom-com than balanced with the original work’s darker turns. While it still includes the problematic poem/song ‘Sigh No More’ which advises resignation in the face of male infidelity, the story has been effectively modernised as watchers capture phone footage of Hero’s infidelity with Borachio (Colin Ginger), in mistaken evidence of Don John’s claim that she has been false to Claudio.

Shakespeare’s original dialogue is maintained for the most part, although with addition of occasional modern obscenities, however, there are changes, beyond just those pronoun etc mentions necessitated by gender-swapped characters (appropriate for such a feminist play). Changing the arbor of Leonato’s orchard, where characters hide in eavesdrop of others to the beer garden, for example, works a treat. The production also maintains the bawdy innuendo and adolescent humour that envelopes Shakespeare’s wit, deception and slander. Charlotte Pilch is clearly enjoying breathing life into the seemingly minor character of the spirited and playfully flirtatious Margaret, whose biting wit is no better shown than when she banters with Beatrice on the morning of Hero’s wedding to Claudio, teasing her about her changed personality and implying that now Beatrice too desires a husband.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of Shakespeare’s few plays written in prose rather than the usual iconic iambic pentameter. Its dialogue is fast-based and, as this production shows, still accessible to a modern audience, thanks to performers who are delivering the words without the usual Elizabethan accents, with Ginger in particular, making the Australian style distinctive in the phonological speech patterns, intonations and syllable stresses that he gives the conspiratorial Borochio.  

The soul of the story is, as always, Beatrice and Benedick and there is an expected delight in the way Kafoa and Shikongo trade their merry war’s fast-paced insults about one another’s looks, intelligence, and personality. Shikongo makes Beatrice’s outspoken, fierce independence vividly clear in declaration that she has no interest in love, however, her wit is not always balanced with softness. And there is little sense that the two have a long-standing history.

The standout has to be Kafoa as class clown Benedick. Indeed, his performance is one of the highlights of the show. His witty wordplay dialogue rolls off the tongue with such ease that it is easy to forget that we are listening to Shakespearian English. He delivers the character’s soliloquies with a smooth but still dynamic rhythm, making them appear as if part of a conversation with the audience, such as when laments his inability to write poetry in attempt to write to Beatrice in accordance with the conventions of the time. And it’s his comic energy that brings the gulling scene to life as Claudio and Don Pedro, conspire with Leonato to trick Benedick into falling in love with Beatrice by staging a loud conversation about Beatrice’s love for him, making sure that that he overhears them from his ‘hiding’ spot behind a pot plant.

The play’s other two lovers, the shamed Hero and her beau Claudio, are presented as a nice counterpoint to Benedict and Beatrice, despite both couples’ romances being fraught with miscommunications and interruptions. And after interval, Gordon Wyeth and Henry Marsh delight with the slapstick physical comedy that comes with pantomime-eque appearance of the shambolic Senior Constable Dogberry and his Constable Verges. Hilarity comes not only from the duo’s physical escapades but from the mangled malpropisms that arise from Dogberry’s overconfidence. Little details also add to the joy of the play’s experience, as we notice pub patrons checking in with the venue’s QR codes and a misspelled home-made banner advertising a ‘masked costume praty tonight’.

This is a busy play for a small stage and while initial sections fly by buoyed by its splendid cast, ensemble numbers see central dialogue sometimes competing with background noise and its Aussie pub soundscape. While it is long, this is a confident production that maintains audience attention. More than a comment upon the patriarchy, the production is a celebration of Beatrice and Benedick’s unacknowledged love, which appears to be appreciated by its audience. Indeed, while the play’s broad humour is highlighted at the expense of its serious undertones, there is much to like about “Much Ado About Nuthink” and its sharp, witty dialogue and humorous misunderstandings.

Fortune’s foolery

Romeo and Juliet (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands Amphitheatre

August 26 – September 12

It has taken the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble until its twentieth birthday year to finally mount a full production of what is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known play, “Romeo and Juliet” and the outcome is most definitely worth the wait. Some would say that it’s hard to put a new twist on the oft-performed play, however, the window dressing of fresh interpretations are somewhat irrelevant, if respect is not shown to the original text. And of the many productions I have now seen of the tragic story of woe, this is the best in terms of making the original text accessible to a modern audience while, in many ways, recreating the experience of watching the work as Shakespeare meant it to be, with early acts bringing bawdy sexual innuendo and horseplay, and audience interaction (mostly from William Summers as an enthusiastic jester of sorts).

The cast speak Shakespeare with clarity, as if it’s easy to understand English and so this is what it becomes. They treat the language with a regard that is evident from the show’s very first scene. Enhancing this, a simple but clever set (design by QSE Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini), allows focus to remain where it should be. The ensemble’s return to the Roma Street Parkland also provides opportunity for the accompaniment of live musicians performing a live score (plus pre-show and interval entertainment), to build upon the emotions being portrayed on stage. And though the opening night environment may have meant competition from fireworks and passing parkland foot traffic (as well as some Act One lighting issues), the professionalism of all performers is such that they never even miss a beat.

The story begins in a Verona torn apart by the warring families of Montague and Capulet where the two star-crossed lovers of the tragedy’s title, push back against the expectations surrounding them and, in their greatest act of defiance, find unexpected love. Obviously, the performances of fortune’s fool Romeo and his true beauty Juliet are, therefore, integral to the merit of any production and, in this instance, Liliana Macarone as a gender-blind Romeo and Sarah Doyle as Juliet, do a commendable job.

Macarone makes for an obsessive Romeo who embraces the emotional rollercoaster of her character’s experience and is equally engaging whether in the intense giddy swagger of young love or a blind rage of attack on his sworn enemy Tybalt (John Siggers). Doyle gives us attitude without the oft-proportioned emo disposition. Her teenage hyperbole brings additional humour too in the reactions of Friar Lawrence (Rob Pensalfini) when Juliet arrives at the cleric’s cell melodramatically brandishing a knife and saying she will kill herself rather than marry Paris, leading to the plan that becomes the tragedy of the play’s end. Her portrayal of Juliet as being more angsty that brattish in her teenage sensibility gives us moments of identifiable parent and child interactions that relate her to, rather than alienate her from, audience members other than the usually aimed-at adolescent viewer.

Detailed care is taken to differentiate characters where actors are fulfilling multiple roles and apart from the over-caricature of Juliet’s father-approved suitor Paris, the rich texture of the play is mostly maintained. Siggers is both a firebrand, easily-angered Tybalt and an invested Friar John, unable to deliver word to Romeo as to Juliet’s plan to use a death-emulating potion to replicate her death. And there is certainly plenty of physical energy to Rebekah Schmidt’s engaging performance as Romeo’s mischievous cousin Mercutio, made all the more impressive by her then quick transformation into a poised Prince of Verona, concerned about maintaining the public peace at all costs. She not only allows us to relish in the saucy merchant’s delicious word play and double entendres but she doesn’t overplay his final moments in the character’s famous ‘a plague on both your houses’ decry. And though he does, as the Nurse banters, love to hear himself talk and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month, in Schmidt’s hands, we could happily listen to him all day.

The witty interplay of mockery between Mercutio and Juliet’s nurse (Rebecca Murphy) not only serves to highlight the binary oppositions at the core of the play’s themes, but provides some of the production’s most pleasurable moments. Murphy is superb as Juliet’s devoted Nurse and comes close to stealing the show. She makes the comic character endearing rather than overbearing, as she so often is played, and though she is talkative throughout, her constant interjections and interruptions of herself, make her scenes, especially those in interplay with Juliet, a real treat. Indeed, the entire production manages to bring the funny at every opportunity, with actors using pace, pause, emphasis and accompanying gesture to effect to help its audience access the full meaning of the characters’ often layered dialogue.

With its abundant energy, Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” is a solid and enjoyable performance of the play. While not everything works perfectly on opening night, the ensemble treats the text with reverence and sticks closely to its intentions even with its gender blind casting, proving just how robust the Bard’s work continues to be.