It’s taken the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble until its 20th birthday year to finally mount a full production of arguably Shakespeare’s best-known play – Romeo & 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 that original text accessible to a modern audience, while recreating the experience of watching the work as Shakespeare meant it to be. Early acts bring bawdy sexual innuendo and horseplay, and audience interaction (mostly from William Summers as an enthusiastic jester of sorts).
The cast speak “Shakespeare” as if it’s easy to understand English, so that is what it becomes. They treat the language with a regard that is evident from the show’s 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 on the emotions 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 was such that they never missed 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 Romeo and 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 in the blind rage of attack on his sworn enemy Tybalt (John Siggers). Doyle gives us attitude. 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. That leads 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.
Detailed care is taken to differentiate characters when 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 about Juliet’s plan to use a death-emulating potion to replicate her demise. 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 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 love to hear himself talk and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month, in Schmidt’s capable 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, 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 out the humour at every opportunity, with actors using pace, pause, emphasis and accompanying gesture to great effect, helping 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 famous work. While not everything worked perfectly on opening night, the ensemble treated the text with reverence and stuck closely to its intentions, even with its gender blind casting, proving just how robust the Bard’s work continues to be.