‘Romeo and Juliet’ opens to a montage of youthful hedonism butting its head up against reckless conflict on a grand and elaborate set and revolving stage, accompanied by an exciting contemporary soundtrack. Wow. Seriously. Wow. It’s rare that in the very first moments of a play you could get me to sit up and feel like I’ve been awakened to a brand new interpretation of Shakespeare but Kip Williams’ direction of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, especially in the first half, was a liberating theatrical experience of the destructive power of living in the extremity of the present moment. I was swinging on that chandelier all the way until interval.
I loved it so much I went twice (to see the first half but more of that later). STC’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a visual feast and the play’s mood, tone and themes were captured beautifully in Williams’ production. This show felt young and fresh. What we see is youth and privilege in an aimless environment finding distraction in stimulants, sex and violence. Try to set it some boundaries and suddenly there’s something to aim for- breaking and pushing those same boundaries (don’t fight, don’t disobey, don’t go to that party…). It perfectly captured a youth culture that lives for the now. What do I feel right now? What do I want right now? Who do I want right now? There is no future to plan for, no consequences to consider and as you’d expect from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, that is at the core of the tragedy.
Seeing Benvolio (Akos Armont) and Mercutio (Eamon Farren) careen with their trolley of alcohol, provoke a fiery Tybalt (Josh McConville) and making it all so active and visceral as we dance around David Fleisher’s imposing and ostentatious set of the Capulet estate, was a beautiful image. Dialogue was redundant. Williams’ pastiche captures the moment and, like a film, we pan around each vignette through the revolve to feel the intimidation and trappings of wealth and then we’re left with intimate moments for our characters in the space left behind, outside the home.
Fleisher’s set also brilliantly serves as multiple layered spaces that extend the opulence and meaning, such as the huge squash game between Capulet (Colin Moody) and Paris (Alexander England), the party scene, Juliet’s (Eryn Jean Norvill) bedroom, the balcony, and Friar Laurence’s (Mitchell Butel) garden and chambers. The comedy of Juliet in disguise as the Nurse (Julie Forsyth) trekking towards her wedding to Romeo (Dylan Young) was another delightful montage as she encounters each character and several double-takes, just like us in the audience, re-looking at the expected as something entirely new. We see the transience of each moment of the play for its characters and it is underscored with a soundtrack of bass lines and percussion. Ah to be young and invincible again.
Of course, the second half takes us somewhere else and suddenly we get serious and lose the energy and vitality of the first half. Whilst the first half is all party, love, hope and playfulness, the second half is doom and gloom and we feel the slowness of pace and rhythm and the buzzing electricity fizzles into middle-age and damned consequences very quickly. The second half feels like it needs an edit as it takes a bex and has a good lie down. It’s inherent in the script but I wish Williams found a way to keep it more alive and active, which he finds in the very end but we’ve already put our shoes back on, started calculating our monthly grocery bill and are ready to go. The first half is visual. The second half is dialogue. The first half is new. The second half is Shakespeare, if you know what I mean.
However, for the first half alone, I hope you see this show if you haven’t already. Norvill’s Juliet is exceptional and the boys of the Montague clan are a lovely triumvirate of energy who own the stage and banter with ease. These boys act as if they've known each other for years and there is a natural chemistry that exudes between them. McConville’s Tybalt (knocked out with a knee injury the first time I saw it, which just seems wrong for the King of Cats) is as ferocious as you’d expect and Moody’s Capulet and Anna Lise Phillips’ Lady Capulet are a perfect example of juxtaposing positions of power and wealth. Forsyth’s Nurse is a terrific comedic vehicle for the actress and she ‘milks that baby’ for all its worth. She minces in a world that strides and runs and we love her pretensions and protestations.This is a strong cast and for a play whittled down to ten characters, it feels appropriate in this contemporary interpretation.
It is obvious that Williams has experience directing opera because there is something epic about this interpretation and design. Williams’ youth is also a drawcard. He taps into something raw and real in youth culture and I recognised these characters and personalities as self-gratifying privilege left to fester.
Technically, the show is masterful. Even Fleisher’s costumes are inspired and although I've made no mention of Nicholas Rayment's lighting, I love the use of his small light in the big space as destiny creeps in from the dark. Williams, crew and cast have outdone themselves and if not for the second-half blues, I would have kept returning to the show like one of those crazy theatre stalkers but that last hour was too much. Too too much. Until then, I’m grabbing the trolley of grog, an inflatable balloon and pretending I’m about 30 years younger than what I am.
Hurrah for giving me something exciting, even if you couldn’t sustain it. I’ll take it and run with it.