Nooo don’t kill yourself, you’re so sexy aha: A review of Romeo and Juliet

Art by Navita Wijeratne

Two households directors, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona Kambri Cultural Centre, where we lay our scene,

From forth the fatal loins creative minds of these two foes cast and crew

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.

 

The ANU Shakespeare Society’s production of Romeo and Juliet performed four sold-out shows and was a genuinely captivating rendition of the bard’s tale. The show boasted co-direction from the partnership of Elodie de Rover and Justice-Noah Malfitano, who sought to bring modern interpretations to timeless characters, focussing on those central themes which transcend time (and indeed, they hoped, overshadowed problematic features of the original text).

The show opened with classical covers of Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence and Beyoncé’s Halo amongst other modern ‘love’ songs.This juxtaposition of classicalism and modernity reflected a significant inspiration for this rendition of Romeo and Juliet, Netflix’s Bridgerton. In speaking to Elodie and Justice-Noah, I learned the directors’ intention to modernise the story where possible, whilst still maintaining and honouring its heritage status, cautious both of revisionism and of presenting controversial ideas without critique. The directors envisioned standing beside the more famous adaptations of the play, not apart nor in front of, and in this vein, their rendition was a faithful retelling of the original text.

Perhaps the loyalty to the bard ran too deep though, as the “‘two hours’ traffic of our stage” referenced in the opening monologue turned out to be closer to double that estimation. The script seemed to be unabridged, which is a confusing choice for a play whose story is as well told and well known as this. The dragging out of an end that we all knew was coming did little to maintain audience engagement or indeed affection for the characters. There were times when I looked up from my pages of notes and out onto the impeccably decorated stage and beautifully costumed characters and hoped that their violent delights would reach their violent ends just a little bit quicker. This was a sour feeling for what was, in all other respects, a very well done play that all those involved should be incredibly proud of.

Despite my complaints about the marathon duration, I thoroughly enjoyed all other aspects of this production. The acting was truly excellent. As the story’s events unfolded, Romeo (Ben Anderson) flexed his theatrical muscles, moving convincingly from juvenile angst, to jubilance, to maddening grief. Romeo’s strength in seriousness was matched by his Juliet (Grace Fletcher). She floated about the stage and faced her storyline with the appropriate balance of shrewdness and naivety prescribed in the original text.

Other stand-out performances gave credence to the expression “there are no small parts, only small actors”. Lady Capulet (Isobel Kuo), Peter (de Mars) and Gregory (Shanaya Nanayakkara) particularly owned their roles, stealing audience attention whenever they stepped onto the stage. Tybalt (Mischa Rippon) completely embodied machismo to the effect of glaring juxtaposition with Mercutio’s (Will Smith-Gander) flamboyant ‘soft boy’ energy. The efforts of ensemble characters played by Ella Andrews, Annabelle Hansen and Charlotte Raftesath were excellent complements to whichever unfolding scene their presence touched. The choreographed fight scenes and acrobatic explosions evidenced an existential dedication from the cast to audience enjoyment which is highly commendable.

The set (designed by Dana Jones) was a silent star, with the use of platforms and elevation adding depth and dynamism to pivotal scenes. The inspiration of Bridgerton very clearly influenced the costuming as well, and designers Claire Noack, Eleanor Cooper and Jacqui Turner were liberal in their employment of empire silhouettes. For some characters, this was to the effect of youthful whimsy and for others, harsh sternness.The thoughtfulness towards characterisation and plot progression shown by the costuming, makeup (Stephanie Burgess, Tia Karlin), hair (Florence Cooper), lighting (Jess Luff), sound and set design made for a glittering show which complemented, but did not outshine, the other elements of production.

Given the very heteronormative and patriarchal source material, I embarked on this play hopeful that this would be a production which set itself apart from these themes and re-presented a reflexive and self-critical Romeo and Juliet. This occurred at some points, such as in the touching relationship between Mercutio and Benvolio (Isaiah Prichard) and through Lady and Lady Montague. However, I thought there was space for more reframing and playfulness than what occurred. I would hope to see more boldness in this regard in future productions, particularly in stories like Romeo and Juliet, which have been done and done and done before.

Indeed it was at the points where the cast was allowed room to play with the text that the play was at its strongest. Humorous ad-lib-like additions from Mercutio, Benvolio, Lord Capulet (Robbie Weardon) and the nurse (Liat Granot) were a welcome relief from the stony-faced solemnity of the story. The brilliant comedic timing of the actors was rewarded by uproarious audience laughter. Shakespeare ordinarily can be constipating, however, when the cast showed such confidence in, and ownership of their characters as to improvise on stage, their originality and gleeful enjoyment was magnetising. Every time the actors leaned into their craft like this, I was anxious and hopeful to see more, which speaks to the exceptional talent of the cast.

ShakeSoc’s Romeo and Juliet was a faithful production of a well-told story which was fantastic nonetheless. If it were still playing in fair Kambri Cultural Centre, I’d probably tell you to see it. But alas, the star cross’d lovers hath taken their lives several times now and we are all the poorer for it. I applaud Elodie and Justice-Noah for undertaking a play of this nature and pulling it off gracefully. The dedication and enthusiasm from the cast and crew resulted in a sparkling rendition of what could have very easily been a dull and dreary play. Bravo and well done to all involved.