Eryn Jean Norvill and Anna Lise Phillips in Sydney Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet © Lisa Tomasetti 2013
Reviewed by James Karas
Director Kip Williams wanted to produce a bold, youthful, innovative and startling staging of Romeo and Juliet for the Sydney Theatre Company. The result is a production that goes from parody to travesty of Shakespeare and provides a largely dreadful night at the theatre.
The first problem that Williams faces is Shakespeare. He simply did not write the play that Williams wants to produce. The solution: omit scenes and characters from the play and change the entire thrust of the tragedy so that it will fit Williams’s vision.
He takes out the first scene of Romeo and Juliet that shows the brawl between the servants of the Capulet and Montague households because he does not want the play to be about the feuding families. Of the more than twenty characters that Shakespeare wrote, Williams needs only ten to give us his interpretation.
This is a modern dress production where the characters drink to excess, smoke (cigarettes or whatever is at hand) or are simply on uppers. Hyperactivity is de rigueur.
In Shakespeare’s play, Capulet sends an illiterate servant to invite townspeople to a ball. In Williams’s version, Capulet (powerfully acted by Colin Moody) is probably a Mafia don and, the director having disposed of all the servants, he (Capulet) sends Paris (Alexander England) a nobleman and prospective husband of Juliet to do the menial chore. Really?
Incongruities are inevitable in a modern production (knives replace swords, for example) but in this production they go beyond the acceptable.
Williams wants the production to be fast-moving, modern, hip and provocative. Benvolio (Akos Armont) usually has a bottle in his hand or is pushing a shopping cart full of booze. Mercutio (Eamon Farren) boogies with a cigarette in his mouth and is quite out of it. He is so hyperactive during the Queen Mab speech, you hardly hear anything. The Nurse (Julie Forsyth) is also frequently drunk and is allowed to overact as if she were parodying herself.
Lady Capulet (Anna Lise Phillips) looks like an oversized caricature of a Barbie Doll and Tybalt (Josh McConville) looks like a Mafia enforcer.
Eryn Jean Norvill is an impressive and enjoyable Juliet. She is young, pretty, has a sense of humour and impeccable timing. She could make a marvelous Juliet in the hands of a less intrusive director. Dylan Young as Romeo is not as successful. Williams wants him to be a modern and very hip young man who has no passion or poetry left in him.
The sets by designer David Fleischer are another source of head-scratching. The interior scenes take place in a barren stately room. The stage revolves frequently to show us the black back of that room. In the latter half of the play we have a black bare stage with some props as necessary.
In Shakespeare’s play, we have the famous balcony scene with the outpouring of the most beautiful love poetry. In Williams’s version, Juliet lives on the main floor with a window and doors opening from her bedroom to the street. Williams turns the balcony scene into a very funny piece and gets quite a few laughs out of it.
When Juliet makes an assignation to meet Romeo at Friar Laurence’s (a muscular Mitchell Butel who displayed his chest) she needs a ruse. Williams adds a scene where Juliet sneaks out of the house dressed like her Nurse.
From the Barbie Doll Lady Capulet to the overacting drunk Nurse, to the binging and hyperactive characters to the funny balcony scene, the production could be done on Saturday Night Live to good effect.
Every director has the right to put his stamp on his production and they all do. The bolder the attempt the greater the chance of success and grimmer the risk of failure. This production, like the hapless suitors of Portia in The Merchant of Venice went for gold and silver and came out almost empty-handed.____
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare played at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia from September 21 to November 2, 2013. http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/