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.

Reworked woe

Romeo and Juliet (La Boite and QUT Creative Industries)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

May 25 – June 15

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The pre-show soundtrack of ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ type songs seems to be an apt choice ahead of La Boite Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet” reminding its audience of the youth at the core of this story of vulnerable teenagers infatuated in spite of their familial-tie expectations. We see it on stage also in the show’s performances and presentation of Juliet (Darcy Gooda) as a particularly precocious, shouty teenager in contrast to her Romeo (Jack Bannister), in disservice to the poetic rhythm and imagery of the language of arguably the Bard’s best known work, regarded by some as one of the greatest love stories of all time.

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This is “Romeo and Juliet” reworked for the 21st century, seen in the details embedded throughout what is still an essentially traditional take from La Boite Theatre in collaboration with QUT Creative Industries (final year acting students appear in the cast alongside some of Brisbane’s best actors). There is no prologue or epilogue to bookend the tale of woe, not that we need them, nor a happy dagger Juliet declaration of intent to join Romeo in death in the Capulet family tomb, but there is an obvious contemporary energy to the violent delights of the stage’s traffic in this 21st century re-imagining of Shakespeare’s iconic love story.

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Even with this as a lens, there appears to be a potpuri approach to its execution, with some only-early CGI and just one lone later live musical number. There are, however, the start of some interesting staging ideas within and upon its deceptively simple looking stage and through modern costumes, including pops of red motif featured throughout (Set and Costume Designer Anthony Spinaze). There is no Verona balcony or Luhrmann-like fish tank, though these scenes are still instantly recognisable. And a sublime lighting moment in Romeo’s approach to Juliet’s ‘balcony’ is over all too soon. The Capulet party at which the star-crossed lovers first meet is an aesthetic explosion, however, the dialogue shared ahead of the doomed couple’s first kiss is lost under its soundscape.

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It is the fight scene that facilitates the show’s most memorable moments. The high-energy highlight serves as the story’s turning point due to its sudden, fatal violence and also because of fortune’s fool Romeo’s resulting banishment for killing Tybalt (Wei Lan Zhong), his new wife’s cousin, in revenge for Tybalt killing his close friend Mercutio (Grady Ferricks-Rosevear). In this exciting realisation, this is enhanced by stylised but realistic sword play (Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton) and a thrilling soundscape (Sound Designer Anna Whitaker), making Tybalt more “Kill Bill” Black Mamba Bride than Prince of Cats, measured, deliberate and even classy in her artful consideration before every sword clash before her death.

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Regardless of its contemporisation, this “Romeo and Juliet” is all about making meaning for its audience and it is wonderful to see people reacting to the humour of the text. Perhaps as Shakespeare intended, the show’s bawdiness gets the biggest laughs, mostly from the brilliant Bridget Boyle as Juliet’s Nurse (also in double duty as the Prince of Verona).

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The supporting cast is very strong. As the saucy merchant Mercurio Ferricks-Rosevear bounces about that stage with Romeo’s cousin Benvolio (Nicole Hoskins), making Queen Mab attempt to calm melancholy Romeo’s fears on-route to their surreptitious attendance at the enemy Capulet family party in the hopes of encountering the unseen character Rosaline, for whom Romeo feels deep feelings of love. His physical, energetic performance carries the show’s early weight, and when his bawdy witticisms give way to his dying words, the mood is of sorrow rather than vengeance, which wisely makes its foreshadowing subtler than is the norm.

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The Friar (Eugene Gildfedder), too, is given a more sympathetic imagining, showcasing the cleric’s guilt for his involvement in the situation, and although his scenes are necessary for foreshadowing purposes, they do drag a little at times. Jack Bannister makes for an excellent Romeo, bringing the script’s language to life with an eloquence that heightens the shrillness of the childish Juliet.

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Despite its staging and script changes, this “Romeo and Juliet” still feels quite traditional. After a word-heavy second half, its ending is compelling in its sorrow but also cathartic as the show’s 105-minute (no interval) running time feels like hard going. For those who know little of the tragic story of two households and the rest, this “Romeo and Juliet” represents a rewarding way into the unfamiliar. Those who think it is unmatched in the dramatic cannon, will likely revel in its experience, however, if you are already just ‘meh’ about what you consider to be a satire about fickle youth, then it might not be the production for you.

Photos – c/o Stephen Henry

Reworking woe

Romeo & Juliet & Friends (Pastiche Theatre Collective)

Daily Planet Café

May 12 – 20

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Everyone knows the story of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. The tragic tale of their untimely deaths reconciling the two households of their feuding fair-Verona families is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays. Its woe has been reworked countless times, on this occasion in Wickham Street’s Daily Planet Cafe courtesy of Pastiche Theatre Collective. Rather than reimagining the classic as so many of its reworks do, “Romeo & Juliet & Friends” gets straight to the core of its acclaim, condensing the two hours’ traffic, balancing its poetic language with contemporary vernacular and adding a musical soundtrack. There are also pauses throughout to make mention of earlier source material of Arthur Brooke et al, in show of how Shakespeare’s work is itself an adaptation. There is even metatheatre consideration of the question of adaptation which turns into an inset affirmative vs negative school debate.

Modern twists appear from the outset of the boisterous take through reappropriation of the prologue as a rap and later as the Nurse banters in text message with her mistress’ bae. Simple additions also establish characters beyond just the white frill collars of each of the four performers. Props serve their purpose too; milk crates are stacked to represent loving Juliet’s iconic balcony and foam swords become makeshift guitars one moment and in the next, Act Three fiddlesticks in the swordfight that sees the witty Mercutio stabbed. The venue itself is of good size for an intimate show of this sort with enough space for not only a decent stage area, but for actors to head into and around the audience to unfold some scenes.

The abridgment obviously means that many scenes are lost. The fairies midwife Queen Mab, for example, barely gets a mention, but the work does not suffer because of it. Wise content choices keep the integrity of the original text while adding interest and momentum. Having the scene of the Friar telling Romeo to flee to Mantua play out physically alongside the Nurse reporting to a heartbroken Juliet about his banishment, works wonderfully, for example.

Appropriately, “Romeo & Juliet & Friends” starts out as a lively comedy before taking a sharp turn into drama. The performers assume multiple roles with ease and there is no confusion around their switches thanks to simple costumes and characterisation. And they are very funny, especially in gender blind casting which sees Daniel Simpson have a great time with his lines as Juliet’s chatty and excitable Nurse and Georgia Nielsen relishing in the comedy of the overly-invested Friar Laurence. Sam Valentine transitions easily a raging Lord Capulet determined to have his daughter married to a charming, lovestruck Romeo, and is excellent in both guises. Similarly, Samantha Sherrin is both the bold, quick-tempered ‘Prince of Cats’ Tybalt and a headstrong Juliet. Both Valentine and Sherrin are at their best in their protagonist roles after Romeo is banished; Sherrin excels, for example, in her emotional monologues.

Like its melodramatic source material, “Romeo & Juliet & Friends” has a lot going on and, as such, a lot to offer. While answer as to the ‘to adapt or not to adapt’ question is answered by the work itself, there is enough of both perspectives within it to keep proponents of either side of argument satisfied. As this accessible examination of the cannon classic shows, clearly, there’s life in the old play yet.

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.

Boozing with the Bard

Drunk Shakespeare (Meme Juice Productions)

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“Drink, sir, is a great provoker” (Macbeth Act II, Sc 3) Sandwiched as they are between the murder of King Duncan and the discovery of his body, The Porter’s drunken words about the advantages and drawbacks of alcohol represent the only comic relief in Shakespeare’s dark and tragic work “Macbeth”. Why? Because drunk people on stage were, and still are, funny. And this is the premise behind Meme Juice Production’s “Drunk Shakespeare”, which is playing (coincidentally) at the Bearded Lady bar, Stone Corner Hotel and Fox Hotel as part of this year’s Anywhere Theatre Festival.

The result is a “Romeo and Juliet” that is not quite as you know it, for each night a different cast member is drunk and becoming more sloshed as the show progresses. In this instance it is a merry Mercutio who is on the booze. And she is quiet hilarious. Yes, Mercutio is a she; for, following the Breadbeard Company’s example in last year’s “><R&J (GREATER THAN, LESS THAN ROMEO AMPERSAND JULIET)”this production relies on gender-blind casting.

After more than four centuries of preservation and re-enactment, Shakespeare’s plays have lent themselves to experimentation, adaptation and modernisation of various kinds, and even before a glass is raised, it is clear that this is an “Romeo and Juliet” unlike any other. Throughout the performance, the actors toy with the text, respond to and interact with the audience, involve audience members on stage and generally do whatever they like. And the energy is high from the outset. Indeed, this is a physical show of country ghetto dance numbers and interpretive-dance fight scenes. However, just as momentum is building, there is an intermission/bar-stop break, which unfortunately slows the pacing of what is only a short show already lacking in cohesion.

As the star of the show (on this night) Mercutio is fierce and funny in her affectionate audience interaction and frank dismissal of plot progress (“a plague on both your houses you f**ktards”). And while you may wonder why she is sometimes speaking in a Southern US accent, you certainly want to share a drink and dance like Elvis with her. With so much comic fodder from the play’s premise, the need to go for cheap laughs from a camp cowboy nurse in arseless chaps seems like an unnecessary distraction. But this is a stage full of distractions, from lemurs to lap dances and split-scene complications. It is all quite madcap, sassy and full of cheek (literary).

As a free-form experiment in the manipulation of the Bard’s work, “Drunk Shakespeare” is a show of much potential but no real depth, for in the balance between Bard and booze, it is the booze that triumphs. The actors’ improvisational skills and high energy make for an amusing night of drink, dance and drama; however, unless you are fluent in “Romeo and Juliet” you may not appreciate exactly what is going on within the chaos and shouty-ness.

You can find all of my Anywhere Theatre Festival reviews on the Festival website.

A tranquil exploration of turbulent emotions

R&J (Expressions Dance Company)

Judith Wright Centre, Expressions Dance Company’s Home Studio

February 20 – 21

Why does the story of two doomed lovers resonate so strongly across four hundred years? Because some things are universal; themes of love and fate resonate across generations and cultures, as is confirmed than in Expressions Dance Company’s “R&J”.

Natalie Weir’s work presents three poignant love stories inspired by Shakespeare’s classic story of star-crossed lovers. The versions are set across different eras, yet despite their contrasting moods, they are all nuanced examinations that generate poignancy through the aesthetically beautiful performances that they showcase.

Act One, “Passion”, is set in a pulsing modern day Fortitude Valley dance club where Romeo and Juliet (Jack Ziesing and Claudia Elder) find each other across a dance floor. Things are sultry as fate intervenes… literally. Weir introduces fate as a character (David Williams), resulting in an captivating fight sequence between the trio that is a highlight of the show.

Act Two, “Romance” is staged in an evocatively blue-hued graveyard, where the lovers (Benjamin Chapman and Rebecca Hall) are secretly wed before being fatefully parted. It is a beautiful and poetic piece, featuring some stunning poses and is most in keeping with Shakespeare’s original fateful tale – mournful, touching and full of longing, without being overly angsty.

The final story “Devotion” takes place in 1950s suburbia, where a comfortably blissful couple play out their daily routine. Bathed in nostalgic, beiged lighting they proceed upon playful tickles on a couch  before fate intervenes. This mature take on the timeless tale, is not only refreshing but masterful, with dancers David Williams and Elise May presenting a stunning display of strength and honest emotion.

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The beauty and power of the dancers are to be commended. Not only do the primary performers shine in their spotlights, but the community engagement sections in the first two acts, allow for the talents of 20 up-and-coming dancers to be showcased. And they do an admirable job.

This successful and popular show (Natalie Weir was Winner of Outstanding Achievement in Choreography at the 2012 Australian Dance Awards and it has toured extensively in regionally Australia since it was first developed in partnership with QPAC in 2011) is well suited to the intimacy of the mini-theatre at Expressions’ Home Studio, at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts.  The set design is a simple gathering of sloped opaque boxes, yet it is evocative and appropriately moody in its creation of place, with pieces serving as headstones, a tomb and a coffin, and adding depth by transparently showing performances from within. It is a simple versatility that is enhanced by John Babbage’s (of Brisbane’s Topology) stunning commissioned score.

“R&J” is a tranquil exploration of turbulent emotions. Indeed, it is very much a show of Natalie Weir’s signature aesthetic, and, as such, it represents an emotionally honest dance event that will leave you thankful for its experience.