By Priscilla Issa
SheShakespeare’s adaptation of the Bard’s most famous play as a queer narrative was spellbinding. Romeo & Juliet is widely recognised as an examination of male aggression and a paradigm of heterosexuality. However, director Shelley Casey and her team boldly subverted heteronormative conventions of relationships to highlight the ferocity and sensuality in which queer couples can love. Poignantly, Audley Anderson (Romeo) and Ruby O’Kelly (Juliet) experimented with a fresh take on the meeting of the tale’s two souls. Rather than foreshadow the woes of rash, young love, the play represents a night at an early naughties party where two strangers leave together after locking eyes, symbolising the normalcy in which immediate connections can come about. But by the same token, the rapid lust between the couple does not detract from the subtext of LGBT+ experiences of isolation in a predominantly heterosexual world. The sinister edge of discomfort is amplified when the confident and brash Paris, played by Kian Pitman, boasts ‘Younger than she are happy mothers made’ and revels in the non-consensual arrangement between he and Juliet.
It appears that Casey was aware that the desperation of this queer love may be inaccessible to a predominantly heterosexual audience. So, the clever choice to include farcical remarks to ‘phallic jokes’, maintaining traditional Shakespearean comedic timing, and ensuring the believability of tangible fear as highlighted in the relationship between Juliet and Lord Capulet (played by the talented Eleni Schumacher), interestingly balanced out the traditional storyline with the gravity of LGBT+ experiences. This balancing act – making something that is a tragedy queer and not tragically queer - was masterfully executed by the astounding chemistry of the two lead actors played against the whimsical and jester-like Benvolio (Sarah de possesse) and Mercutio (Alexandra Fricot). Thus, without overselling the immense difficulties experienced by Romeo and Juliet in their queer relationship, the play paradoxically and powerfully encapsulated the ‘woe’ experienced by many LGBT youths.
Through a queer lens there is also another layer – that of Friar Laurence. It was refreshing to see that the character was not played in the common stoner-type way; rather, there was an undertone of concern for Romeo’s emotional and mental wellbeing in a world of Capulet homophobia. As the Friar’s famous warning of ‘these violent delights’ rings, there is a warning that queer individuals have on countless occasions considered: homophobic ‘violent ends’ are a frequent and devastating consequence for simply being with the one you love.
Rather than reduce the text to sexual jokes, every member of the cast passionately gave new life to the story making a couple who are the paradigm of heterosexuality truly star-crossed lovers. The heartfelt chemistry between the teenagers (Audley Anderson and Ruby O’Kelly), the frustration and confusion of the Capulets (Ebony Nave and Eleni Schumacher), the playful but sincere support of the nurse (Tricia Morison), the concern of the best friends (Sarah de possesse and Alexandra Fricot)…this dynamic cast powerfully demonstrated what happens when a play challenges society’s binaries of male or female, straight or queer.
A remarkable touch to this production were the dreamy tones of Musical Director, Prudence Holloway, on vocals and guitar. Occasionally supported by the cast in song, Holloway took audiences on a musical journey. The live music gave weight to the rollercoaster of emotions emanating from the actors. At times wistful and at other times grungy, the 90s and naughties soundtrack evoked teen experiences of lust, love and pain.
The clever lighting design by Jasmin Borsovszky, which included strobe effects and palettes of whites, reds and blues complimented the waves of emotions being experienced on stage. Fight scenes, choreographed by Kyle Rowling, were believable and highlighted the battle between homophobia and social justice.
Perhaps for future performances, Casey, O’Kelly and Schumacher might like to consider the following. The role of Lord Capulet, although a minor role, is a rather significant role. In traditional and heteronormative adaptations, Lord Capulet is concerned about his image. The socialite goes so far as to disallow the mistreatment of Romeo despite the teenager gate-crashing his party. Furthermore, his anger towards Juliet arises not only from his sense that his child should obey his orders but that her protestations would reflect poorly on Capulet himself.
While Schumacher did a rousing job evoking Capulet’s struggle with the grief over his nephew’s death and his daughter’s insolence, and while O’Kelly met Schumacher’s intensity with heartache, it might be interesting for the actors to consider the subtext. Sometimes queer children give off implicit signs of their sexual identity to their parents to test the waters for approval – a kind of peering out of the closet, so to speak. It would be fascinating to see O’Kelly play the part of subtly approval-seeking child and for Schumacher to play a suspicious, passive aggressive and homophobic parent. This would have made for a nice juxtaposition to the nurse’s initially suspicious but then welcoming and accepting demeanour.
Regardless, what an extraordinary recreation of Shakespeare’s beloved play! Congratulations to all. SheShakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is playing at the Factory Theatre, Marrickville until November 23rd. Do not miss it!
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.