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.

Two-tale treat

The Winter’s Tale (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

August 24 – September 9

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Winter may not really have made it to Brisbane this year, but its tale is being told at Roma Street Parklands in 2017’s Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of one of the Bard’s later and most problematic works, grown out of the anthology of his preceding plays.

Rather than offering a seasonal suggestion, however, the title, “The Winter’s Tale” insinuates a fairy tale of the old wives’ sort. And while it is grouped among Shakespeare’s comedies, its second act happy ending comes after a first act of psychological drama as a family is torn apart when a beloved King turns into a jealous monster, setting in motion a series of events that forever changes the lives of everyone he loves. The result is a tragi-comedy about forgiveness in which redemption is available to all and everyone gets to live.

By Shakespeare standards, it is a relatively simple story. Leontes, King of Sicily (Rob Pensalfini) is consumed by jealousy that Queen Hermione (Paige Poulier) is pregnant by his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia (an under-used Silvan Rus). Protestations of their innocence only deepen his conviction and Leontes orders the faithful Camillo (Liliana Macarone) to kill Polixenes. Instead, Camillo and Polixenes escape to Bohemia as Leontes banishes Hermione to a dungeon where she gives birth to a daughter, Perdita who is taken away and abandoned to die. Leonates later repents and Perdita (Meghan Bowden) returns, having been saved and raised by a passing shepherd.

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Presented by the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, the show is full of Shakespearen traditions. There’s audience acknowledgement, bawdy bits and the arrival of a ‘letter’ to save the day, even if in this instance the Oracle’s rule to Leontes that Hermoine is innocent and her daughter is his, goes ignored. Costumes are intricate and interesting in their detail and lighting adds layers to the already-unique parkland open-air aesthetic. With the audience seated around the action on the park’s amphitheatre’s stage, there is opportunity to make use of the area’s banked seating as an additional performance space and action sometimes spills from the stage. This works well, even if the accompanying sound effects sometimes distract more than enhance, in competition with modest voice projections. There is certainly a lot happening throughout the production, including pre-show and at interval where the multi-talented cast perform live music.

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One of the most wonderful things about seeing a Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble show, is hearing familiar Shakespearean phrases brought to life by a uniformly-excellent cast. “The Winter’s Tale” offers no exception; words are enunciated clearly and verse is delivered beautifully. Pensalfini is strong as the obstinate King Leontes, though his latter repentance is somewhat too subtle. And Paige Poulier is excellent as Hermoine, delivering a memorable, dignified appeal to Leontes’ conscience and plea for mercy. Her passionate delivery is maturely muted with a rationality and integrity that contrasts Leontes’ irrational jealousy and sets Hermoine apart from more meek Shakespearean heroines of the Desdemona sort.

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Despite only being present for brief scenes in the play, Rebecca Murphy also adds interest through her compelling depiction as the noblewoman Paulina. Unrelenting in her condemnation, she is the only one who can talk back to the King, and she does, fiercely defending the ‘sweet’st, dear’st creature’ Hermione’s virtue in call-out of his ‘gross and foolish’ decisions. In this moving scene, which sees Paulina bringing the baby Perdita to Leontes and pleading with him to look at the child and realise it is indeed his daughter, her Paulina is strong and determined, revealing no weaknesses that might undermine her arguments against injustice. And at the other extreme, Chris Vaag is as comically charming as ever, this time as the roguish wandering minstrel-pickpocket vagabond Autolycus.

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While the skilled cast carry the play along and produce some fine moments, it is a long night and, at times, it feels like it, especially after the switch between the story’s disparate halves. It is frustrating too that the script calls for things to happen offstage to be descripted by someone onstage, beyond its famous ‘exit pursued by a bear’ stage direction preceeding the offstage death of Antigonu.

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Previous productions show that QSE are at their best in presentation of the tradition of Shakespearean comedy and although its themes are more pastoral, “The Winter’s Tale” is illustration of this above all else. Whether courtesy of physicality, exaggeration or passive aggressive insults, its latter half crams in as much comedy as possible, which in some way counteracts the dissatisfaction of its all-is-forgiven ending.  Certainly, “The Winter’s Tale” has much to offer audiences, including opportunity to add a seldom-performed play to their Shakespearean repertoire. And that makes it a treat worth seeing… even if it is sans bear.