By Helena Parker
Romeo and Juliet is a well thumbed story known by all and reproduced thousands of times, but under the erudite direction of Sport for Jove's Damien Ryan the play takes on a new and vibrant perspective.
Staged in Bella Vista Farm Park in front of the old country house, this production immediately sets itself apart by highlighting the actual Italian-ness of the play. Given that Shakespeare is an English playwright, most productions are performed with this context in mind and you could almost forget the play is meant to be set in Verona, but here, Ryan accentuates this. The old house is hung with lines of washing and littered with crates of produce and as the play begins we hear the crackling sounds of Italian news playing from an old 40’s radio. Collectively, the cast look as if they had just stepped out of the 2000 film Malèna, complete with a silent Nonna decked out all in black, dressed very well by costume designer Bernadette Ryan. Delightful improvisations in Italian add humour and character to the piece.
The set also gives the production a singular sense of insularity: these are bickering families in too close proximity to each other. A poignant scene sees a street brawl between the young men of the family, who are literally fighting amidst their mother’s washing. In this way, the ‘ancient grudge’ between the Montague’s and the Capulet’s is something petty and futile rather than a grand, masculine quarrel. It is a theme within the production that aspects of the play are distinctly demystified and humanised, such as the love between Romeo and Juliet and the family dynamic as well.
Here, the respective families of Romeo and Juliet are kind, loving, sprawling Italian families where everyone is close and raucous family gatherings are full of wild music and dancing. There are a few wonderful dance scenes within the production and great composed songs by Drew and Naomi Livingston, which give the play a full sense of life and vibrancy. The relationship between Juliet and her father is affectionate and full of fun; Capulet (played with great energy by Septimus Caton) tickles his daughter who is playing dead in the first scene, to screeches and giggles which, in the end, provides an extremely moving contrast to her fate in the final scene, as he naively tries to tickle her back to life. Juliet also has a loving and fun relationship with her cousin Tybalt, who is seen running her around on piggyback, however this close dynamic also makes Juliet’s forgiveness of Romeo’s murder a little hard to believe and frames their love affair as something childish and blind.
The choice to cast teenagers in the roles of Romeo, Juliet and Mercutio most notably, is definitely a strong one, but it also has interesting implications on the message of the play. Leading the cast is Oliver Ryan and Claudia Elbourne as Romeo and Juliet, both giving extremely sophisticated performances considering their ages. Ryan is funny and passionate as Romeo, highlighting the sincere mad-dog energy of teenage boys and Elbourne gives us a besotted Juliet, very much her 13 years. Special mention should also be given to Max Ryan as the troubled, charismatic Mercutio, arguably the most compelling character in the play, and Jeremi Capese as the loyal Benvolio, although truly all the cast were magnificently strong. Clearly, the actors have all benefitted from the astute direction of Ryan and despite some interference from noisy birds and some shaky diction, the performances were clear and readable.
The youth of these central characters, and the impetuousness with which they are presented leaves the audience with the message that their love, although sincere, is teenage hormones and perhaps burns too bright to ever end happily. This is an interesting dynamic and balances quite curiously with the message put forth by the director, that it is folly to ignore the pleas of the young especially in our era of climate striking.
It may seem from the outside, the production dissuades trust being placed in young passionate teenagers, but I think it may be more sophisticated than that. Juliet and Romeo’s love encompasses the experience of what it is to be a teenager, the zeal and the desperation, but that does not make it any less legitimate or sincere. In the end, perhaps we could all benefit by letting a little more of the passion of our youth into our lives, as it is this bright sparkling energy that brings out true change in the world, and should never be put out.
Romeo and Juliet is truly a great show and Damien Ryan should be congratulated for making such an enjoyable (and funny!) Shakespearean Tragedy, which may be considered a bit of a paradox. I would highly recommend this show. Seeing a great play about big human themes and meaty emotions is always rewarding when situated in an outdoor theatre. Somehow it feels a little more ancient and intrinsic and, despite the birds, its a beautiful way to spend a summer’s night.
Romeo and Juliet will move from Bella Vista Farm to Leura Everglades from the 11th-26th of January and to Old Gov House in Parramatta Park from the 2nd Feb to the 1st of March.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.