This is a big, elemental production. It is austere and physical, stripped back to the essentials. There is no blood, little adornment, no shoes even. The focus is on the actor’s body – its material and vocal expressiveness in service of the text. In so many ways it reminded me of Poor Theatre’s stripping back to the fundamentals of performance in, as Grotowski attempted to describe it, a ‘… discarding of masks, the revealing of the real substance: a totality of physical and mental reactions.’
Director Jennifer Flowers has produced a Romeo and Juliet that will appeal to those who like their Shakespeare and their acting unvarnished and quick. Certainly, this production is all of that. Playing time is under 2 and a half hours with no interval.
The cast of twelve (8 men and 4 women) inhabit a world that is indeterminate; their unadorned costumes are of another time and place although in setting – elemental stone and water – designer Bill Haycock (with lighting by David Walters) has beautifully referenced the coldness of a classical citadel rather than the usual richness and warmth of Verona’s Renaissance city. It fits the rest of the production and provides a new viewing of a play whose story is so well known in our culture that even those who have never experienced it on page, stage or screen feel that they ‘know’ it. Ms Flowers’ production is a bold revisioning, and one that may take people by surprise. That’s no bad thing at all.
The performances themselves are of a piece with the production – direct, unadorned and fast. If I have a criticism of the production it is this. It hurries … rushes forward. There is no time to allow the audience and, it seemed at times, the actors to draw breath before pitching headlong into the tragedy which we know is coming. Scenes are punctuated by terse trumpet blasts – another terrific sound design from composer Phil Slade. It feels often as though there is no time to enjoy the nuances and detail and variety of much of the text in action, especially in its speaking. The risk when tempo is accelerated uniformly, as it seemed to be on opening night, is that lines as well as vocal variety will be lost. However, I have no doubt this experienced company will soon solve any lingering problems with the production’s tempo-rhythms.
The big moments in the play were captured for me when the bottled-up feelings behind what felt and sounded for a lot of the time like declamation rather than true expression, were allowed to burst out. The result was deeply affecting.
Caroline Kennison (Nurse) and Steven Grives (Capulet) are quite superb. Indeed, their performances, along with that of Steven Tandy (Friar Lawrence) were one of the highlights of this production. Mr Grives’ is a beautifully-realised characterisation infused with all Capulet’s inconsistencies. Ms Kennison’s Nurse is a clown, robust and fully relished. The arc of her journey finishes in unadulterated grief at her discovery of Juliet’s body. I don’t mind admitting it was one of the couple of places that brought tears to my eyes. The other was at Mr Tandy’s helpless grief in the face of his unwitting part in the tragedy.
Melanie Zanetti and Thomas Larkin play Juliet and Romeo; it’s adorable casting. They are a beautifully matched, white-clad pair; he tall, lithe, vulnerable – she small, funny, wise beyond her years. The oppression of the world of privilege in which they live weighs heavily on both. The brooding set which Romeo scales, and in which Juliet is imprisoned, beautifully figures their predicament. We know it’s not going to end well, and watching the way these frail creatures negotiate their doomed pathway is both beautiful and terrible. Both Ms Zanetti and Mr Larkin, two enormously talented young actors, are spirited, lovely, and heartbreaking here.
On another matter, this production casts Mercutio as a woman – hooray for gender-blind casting. It’s a fair enough experiment but I’m not sure it works here. Despite Veronica Neave‘s authority and physical command in the role, the usual male banter and sexist word play seem oddly out of context coming from a female character. It’s transformed into physical action that appears a bit forced and unnatural. The Nurse takes a moment to bark in frustration, ‘What are you?’ to Mercutio. It’s a fair question, and the opportunity to examine it goes begging.
Tim Dashwood (Paris/Peter), Ross Balbuziente (Tybalt/Balthazar), Nick Skubij (Benvolio/Friar John), Simon Burvill-Holmes (Prince/Servant), Norman Doyle (Montague/Apothecary), and Andrea Moor (Lady Capulet) complete the uniformly excellent cast.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare plays at Playhouse QPAC until 13th May.
Director: Jennifer Flowers
Designer: Bill Haycock
Composer/Sound Designer: Phil Slade
Choreographer: Lisa Wilson
Voice Coach: Melissa Agnew
Fight Consultant: Niki J Price