By Helena Parker
Romeo and Juliet is a play that is often at the receiving end of contemporary critique. To modern viewers the love between the couple is hard to believe; they are simply too young (mostly likely 16 and 14, respectively) and their love seems to be more like teenage, hormone-fuelled lust. Looking back on classic plays with modern eyes can yield interesting new interpretations and discourses, however this presentism can also muffle what the work is actually trying to say and ignore the context within which it exists.
Rosaline definitely takes this approach in Joanna Erskine’s rewrite of the classic narrative, this time from the perspective of sidelined character, Rosaline. If you know the Romeo and Juliet story, Rosaline is Romeo’s ‘first love’ whom, according to Romeo and his friends (she doesn’t have any physical stage time), ‘scorns him’. In this way, Rosaline falls into the category of feminist retellings of canonical pieces. These are highly important works which seek to rewrite neglected female characters back into the picture and reclaim their space. It is true that this seems to be what Rosaline was aiming for. We see her routinely filming herself and others throughout the play, a visual metaphor for repositioning herself at centre of the narrative. She evens says at the end of the play, “I tell the story now”. You would be right in thinking this play does not waste time in insinuations and subtleties.
My main gripe with the play is the manner in which the character Rosaline is written. I commend rewrites on classic plays and opening up space for new and more complicated female characters. But the problem here is that Rosaline is not a complicated female character. In fact, she seems entirely ‘one note’. She spends the entirety of the play pining for Romeo, whose attention quickly turns elsewhere (enter Juliet) when she is slow to give up her virginity to him. She is strong willed in her feelings and unable to grasp his rejection. If we are to rework classic narratives with new characters and perspectives, isn’t the effort only worthwhile if these characters in turn destabilise and question their original simplification? Rosaline is reduced to a boy-mad teenager, not much better presumably than Romeo and Juliet themselves.
It is a shame that Erskine felt the need to reduce the original Romeo and Juliet to such a simplified story. That is, that Romeo is essentially horny and Juliet is the girl that falls for his sweet words and pretty poetry. Of course, Shakespeare has some problematic elements, we can all agree on that. But looking back with harsh eyes masks the wisdom that can be gained from them, and the opportunity to explore it’s problems in an intelligent, insightful way.
There are also some puzzling narrative features such as Rosaline’s apparent addiction to a herbal tonic administered to her by a cantankerous Friar. We are told her Uncle forced her to take the medication after the death of her parents when she became ‘too wild’. I assume we are to be reminded that ‘wild women’ are scorned for not meeting the expectations of submissive femininity. But this is tackled a little too on the nose, and exactly what the tonic does and why is not clearly explained. It is also never quite explained why Rosaline cannot give up her virginity. It is insinuated that this is for health reasons, not morality. Why does the Friar stop her doing so if there is, in fact, nothing wrong with her? There seemed something unsavoury about the Friar’s overprotectiveness. Does he love her? Why does she call him ‘Father’? Perhaps it is my shortcomings but I found these points hard to discern.
On the surface, Rosaline is mightily complicated. Headstrong, a herbal-tonic addict and she films herself a lot. But I felt Erskine didn’t give Rosaline much to do apart from love Romeo and this became repetitive. Aanisa Vylet gave an adequate performance as the titular character, but the writing and direction did not help her bring more light and shade to the character, which only made Rosaline even more one sided. Alex Beauman gave a capable performance as the sex-crazed, hoodie-wearing Romeo but Jeremi Campese fared the best as the jealous Peter who showed sensitivity and subtlety as the rival lover.
The sound design by Tegan Nicholls gave pace and urgency to the piece, as the transition periods were set to loud techno music. Lighting design by Martin Kinnane also lit the piece beautifully with a great variety of colours and sequences. These really helped to bring colour to the piece. As a concept, I did find the idea of Rosaline's filming being projected onto the stage an interesting and dynamic theatrical element. It was a shame, however, that the video could not be clearly seen as it was projected not onto a flat surface, but a curtain. Perhaps if the projection was directed onto the opposite wall it could have worked more effectively, as I’m sure it would.
I do commend Rosaline in its attempts to shine light on forgotten female characters in art, an effort that is both intriguing and necessary. The concept has real potential to be an exciting companion piece to the original. However for this to work effectively Rosaline needed a little more nuance, otherwise the whole venture becomes void.
Photo Credit: Marnya Rothe
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.