Bringing the Bard bug

Romeo & Juliet (shake & stir theatre company)

It might sometimes feel like nothing new can be said about Shakespeare. Thankfully, however, shake & stir theatre co disagree and their In School production of “Romeo & Juliet” is testament to this in the manner with which it brings a traditional text to life while maximising its engagement with audience members.

This is very much a post-Luhrmann production with mutual elements that are immediately identifiable. Johnny Balbuziente plays a moody Romeo, while Dani Miller emphasises Juliet’s youthful innocence. In terms of characters, however, it is Matt Walsh who is truly given chance to shine; his Mercutio is playfully flamboyant, and as Juliet’s overly-dramatic, bosomy nurse, he encapsulates the kind of bawdy humour synonymous with the Bard’s work.

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While this “Romeo & Juliet” adaptation includes some hints at the play’s sexually suggestive, crude and humorously indecent language, it never strays too far out of PG territory, befitting its school student audiences. Rather, the work manages to condense the Bard’s five acts into a lively 50 minutes, including all significant scenes and showing how little the pair of lovers actually features together in the text.

What helps to bridge the scenes is the manner in which the young love is recontextualised through the clever use of intertwining text, music, video and photography, whose Instagram filters help create the show’s Hipster, Indie feel. Not only does this add to audience appeal, but in providing passage of time transitions, it also allows for the performer’s rapid character conversions. For this is a show of just three actors, but many characters and in every instance characterisation is distinct, achieved not just through props and costumes, but the simplest of nuances such as an altered stature or gaze.

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It is clear that shake & stir knows its audiences just as much as it respects its source material and the company’s passion for performing ensures that young people are empowered to take on the canon, whether this be by prompting consideration of the role of fortune and where guilt over the tragedy should lie or encouraging even the most reluctant of audience members to connect with the work’s lyrical words. Given that the relevance and context of Shakespeare’s humour can so often be lost in language, this is certainly a wonderful thing.

It has been said that poetry, Shakespeare and opera are like mumps and should be caught when young, for in the unhappy event that there is a postponement to mature years, the results may be devastating. Thankfully, shake & stir provides a platform to bring the Bard bug to young people for the catching.

Such stuff as dreams are made on

The Tempest (shake & stir theatre company)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

January 20 – January 21

Shake & stir theatre company has created a lively adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s final works in a whirlwind “The Tempest” that condenses the Bard’s five acts into a digestible running time of under 90 minutes. Of course, some characters and themes of the original are sacrificed, however, there is enough skill and artistry on display to ensure that the show still feels satisfying. This is quite the achievement, considering that the production is showcasing the talent of the top 30 competitors from the Inaugural Queensland Youth Shakespeare Festival.

“The Tempest” is one of the final plays William Shakespeare ever wrote, which brings additional meaning to wizard Prospero’s audience farewell upon relinquishing his magic powers. And shake & stir’s Matt Walsh’s performance as Prospero is one of the strongest points of the production. Well-meaning, rather than bitter, he is more father than wizard, which suites the modern touches that punctuate this interpretation. Indeed, his throw-away parent lament of “teenagers” speaks volumes as to the universality of Shakespeare’s enduring themes. And to see a predominantly youthful audience empathetically engaged by Miranda (India Oswin)’s teenage angst reminds of the excitement of Shakespeare’s insight into humanity and the beauty of mankind. For, as Miranda herself notes, “how beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

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This is a trademark shake & stir show with modern mentions of Bieber, Twilight and even a Campbell Newman jibe peppering the performance and an early intertexual nod to Othello. The on-stage band, too, adds to the freshness of the production, however, the loud music and effects of the thunderous opening storm scene makes it difficult to hear all of the ensemble dialogue. Magic is created through simple means, allowing the spirits (four Ariels, who work wonderfully together), monsters, lovers and fools on stage every opportunity to reveal in the fantastical story of Prospero’s plot to restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place.

The comic interactions of King’s jester Trinculo and drunken steward Stephano add to the boisterousness of the production. While Liam Soden’s drunken steward is, at times, a staggering, slurring caricature, Lachlan Sutherland gives a consistent, committed performance in understanding that any Shakespearean jester should be realised in gesture and facial expression, as much as in speech. When it comes to words, however, as Miranda’s wooer Ferdinand, Ryan Hodson’s dialogue is delivered with an aplomb that does justice to the poetry of the Bard’s words.

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Bathed in Jason Glenwright’s ethereal lighting hues of green and blue, the stage is a spectacle of dreamlike quality, enticing the audience into contemplation of the play’s most famous pronunciation that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on” …dreams realised, perhaps in the escape of the theatre and the experience of differing interpretations of seminal shows such as this.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans