No holds Bard: STC’s Romeo and Juliet

Alongside A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet is surely one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. Yet out of this gross familiarity comes a complacency borne of contempt and over-saturation of two lovers drawn from feuding families, whose “misadventured piteous overthrows / do with their death bury their parents’ strife.” Enter, then, Kip Williams, with his production of Romeo and Juliet for Sydney Theatre Company. Tired of the age-old story of two warring households, Williams has (boldly) shrunk the scale of the play’s cast and scope to a mere ten players, focusing the story on Capulet, his expectations for his daughter Juliet, and her own conflicting choices and desires; how much of a toxic mix this is, then as now.
It’s a bold move, and one that may very well set a cat among the pigeons, just as Tybalt explodes amongst Romeo and his friends in the town square. Struck by the “underlying similarities” between houses Capulet and Montague, Williams’ production gives us our own world back at us, a world where “vacuous narcissism” and “old money” is “steeped in unquestioned tradition.” A world where “violence is born of boredom, habit, alcoholism and ego.” In doing so, he loses none of the play’s lyricism and intoxicating poetry; in fact, his staging only serves to heighten it, and by the end – almost three hours later – I dare you not to be left speechless in your seat, the full weight of this spectacular, crisp, sharp production like Tybalt’s knife in your gut.

David Fleischer’s set is something to behold: a large box-like atrium, its three white walls scuffed and tarnished through years of neglect, sits on a revolve and spins, the clockwise pattern of its turning giving us both the interior and exterior of the house in a single movement. Inside, we get the boys from Verona swinging from the chandelier, drinking and fighting from boredom; outside, the police patrol the streets, and characters come and go through the many doors set flush into the atrium’s walls. It’s a clever set, ingeniously operated and utilised, and there are many lovely moments in which its full potential is used – the ‘balcony’ and party scenes but two examples. In much the same way as Mercutio is drunk on words, and Romeo and Juliet are drunk on their love for each other, so too does Fleischer’s set seem to be intoxicated by its own design, its movement and function very hard to resist. In the second half, however, the revolving box disappears, leaving us instead with a black void, albeit with a double-revolve set in its floor. Onto this revolve, we get simple items of set – just one; a bed – and everything else is created through the characters’ movements, actions, words and emotions. It’s a bold move, on both Williams’ and Fleischer’s part, to completely eschew the giddy revolving box for a black-box type design, but it works: where the first half is all about the intoxicating rush of first love, the falling in love, then the second half is the clamorous (and catastrophic) consequences of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage.
The cast are all tremendous. Eamon Farren’s Mercutio comes close to stealing every scene he’s in with his bawdy and lewd speeches and movements, great swathes of text oozing trippingly off his tongue. He has a loose kind of walk which, when coupled with his mustard velvet suit and his street clothes, gives him the cut of a dandy or of a kind of peacock, strutting his stuff throughout the town. Every inch a cynic and a dreamer, his Queen Mab speech is entirely magical, and his death – coupled with a very poignant downplaying of his own mortality (as well as his famous lines) – is always a shame as it deprives us, the audience, of a true gutter-poet’s intoxicatingly vivid drug-trips.
Julie Forstyth’s Nurse is every bit of Mercutio’s match, her behaviour and suggestivity a rival to anything Mercutio can muster; their brief scenes together are wondrous to behold. As the play unfolds, we grow to see how close Juliet and her Nurse were – are – and there are some rather beautiful moments between Forsyth and Eryn Jean Novill’s Juliet.
Josh McConville’s Tybalt is every bit as dangerous as the ‘prince of cats’ should be. You just need to look at him, with his shaved head and lean, mean, and slightly hunched walk to know that he means trouble. In many ways, McConville's Tybalt is a close cousin to his performance as Brett Sprague in Griffin’s The Boys in 2012, and it’s not hard to be scared by him. The fight between Tybalt, Mercutio and Romeo is made even more realistic by the look of (pure) terror on Dylan Young’s face as they fight to [Tybalt’s] death.
As the titular lovers, Dylan Young and Eryn Jean Norvill are suitably breathless and naïve, and though older than their characters’ ages, their emotional honesty and validity is integral to the play’s success. Just fourteen in Shakespeare’s play, Juliet’s innocence is set against her hauntingly eloquent poetry, especially in the second half, when she talks about cutting Romeo out into “little stars.” It’s a beautiful speech, and Norvill’s performance aches with a power and a rawness which belies her characters’ age, but is also testament to her skills as an actor. As Romeo, Young is initially equally breathless and anxious, their first meeting a nice little bit of physical comedy. As their relationship grows and the play develops, Juliet’s reluctant acceptance of events as they spiral out of control is violently juxtaposed with Romeo’s determination to fight his punishment head on; if they didn’t belong to Dylan Thomas, we could almost imagine Romeo raging “against the dying of the light.” The pre-banishment scene between Juliet and Nurse (III.2), and then Romeo and Friar Laurence (III.3) is a heartbreaking example of their approach to their circumstances, and Juliet’s acceptance of her father’s desire to see her married to Paris is equally devastating.
Williams’ direction across the play’s almost-three-hour running time is crisp, clear, smooth and robust; along with his shifting of focus onto Juliet’s choice (or lack thereof), his editing of the text creates room for several moments of physicality which open the story out into a semblance of our own. His choice to cut the “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?” scene (I.1) is both bold and necessary – by physicalising what Shakespeare does in a scene, Williams is able to throw us into the middle of the story’s social and political world in a single image, and the moment also allows him to show off Fleischer’s revolving set in a gorgeous montage-esque sequence. Set to a dance-music score and rather electronic sound design (Alan John and Nate Edmondson), the bass beat from the party scene suddenly becomes Romeo and Juliet’s fast-beating hearts in a startlingly fresh moment of sonic poetry. There are moments in the score which seem to be imbued with something akin to Sigur Rós’s lyricism, and it perfectly captures the giddiness, the head-over-heels nature of Romeo and Juliet’s attraction to each other, at the same time as hinting at something darker to come. The visual poetry with which Williams stages the second half of the play is all the more powerful for its simplicity, for the haunting emptiness of its mise en scène.
Williams’ ending, whilst entirely comprised of Shakespeare’s lines, is not your usual ending. It’s both a bold choice as well as a potentially controversial one, but I don’t think it’s a bad choice at all. In light of his desire to refocus the play more on the Capulet family, “on Capulet’s recruitment of Paris to marry Juliet and the tension found between familial expectation and the fight for something more authentic,” the ending is spot on. And as the lights plunge into blackout and the curtain falls, I dare you not to be left speechless. In Year Twelve, my English teacher showed us ten minutes of Julie Taymor’s Titus, defying us to see Shakespeare in the same way afterwards. This production is another one of those groundbreaking moments, only the third time I have been left speechless by a piece of theatre. I actually think the ending is better this way; it’s more powerful. And undeniably more tragic.
Sorry, Will.

Theatre playlist: 30. Fitzpleasure, Alt-J

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