Saturday, 8 December 2018

Romeo & Juliet - Theatre Review

What: Romeo & Juliet
When: 6 - 16 December 2018
Where: The Rose Garden, St Kilda Botanical Gardens
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Jennifer Sarah Dean
Musical direction by: Ben Colley
Performed by: Lucy Best, Benjamin Colley, Matthew Connell, Anthony Craig, Lilliana Dalton, Carly Ellis, Tref Gare, Ayesha Gibson, Joanna Halliday, Emma Jevons, and Hunter Perske, John Reed, Karl Richmond, Paul Robertson, Andy Song, and Emily Thompson
Choreography by: John Reed
Set by: Karli-Rose Laredo
Costumes by: Rhiannon Irving
Karl Richmond, Carly Ellis, and Matthew Connell - photo by Burke Photography
It is summer in Melbourne and time for all our garden Shakespeare companies to draw theatre goers and families out into the waning evening sunlight for magical mystery tours of theatre from our Anglo-patri-colonial past. The first off the blocks this year is Melbourne Shakespeare Company with that romantic old favourite, Romeo & Juliet, which is being performed in the stunning rose garden at the St Kilda Botanical Gardens.

Melbourne Shakespeare Company pay great attention to making sure they are in beautiful surroundings and present beautiful work and Romeo & Juliet fits the brief well. Everything is immaculate from the stage, to the costumes, to the props and the cast are always extremely well rehearsed with great attention to character, physicality (physical comedy is one of the company's fortes) and this year especially, voice work.

Led by director Jennifer Sarah Dean, Melbourne Shakespeare always bring a delightfully old school English feel to their productions and this year she goes a step further, interpreting the story as pantomime complete with a cross dressing female character in the Nurse (Gare). Gare is from the UK as well so his perfect interpretation of this mechanism makes complete sense.

Unfortunately some of the problems with this Romeo & Juliet stem from this very place. Shakespeare is old and outdated (if you get past that patri-colonial anglo-centric myth his plays are timeless and universal) so directors and auteurs have free licence to do absolutely anything with his plays which is why so many companies put on his work rather than approaching modern plays which more accurately speak to our world and the people in it. Turning the romantic tragedy that is Romeo & Juliet into a pantomime is many steps too far though, and the whole conceit falls apart from the point of Mercutio's (Richmond) death.

Whilst the play is potentially a barrel of laughs at the start, the concept of comedy begins on the basic premise that it has a happy ending. We can say a lot about Romeo & Juliet, but that is not one of them. It is also questionable as to whether the time for men to dress as women to create clownish charicatures is well and truly over in the post-truth age.

Another confusing aspect is the costume designs. Irving has once again developed a playful and detailed palate, but the 1920's flapper era was disconnected from the friar cassocks and the nurse outfit. When the show first began I excitedly thought this was going to be a Bonnie & Clyde gangster interpretation. The pantomime thing shook me completely. This is why design and concept are so important and the choices of one can invalidate or cause cognitive dissonance with the other no matter how beautiful.

Regardless, the cast were all at the top of their game and gave a lively rendition. I especially loved the camaraderie of the Montague boys. Song (Balthasar) and Ellis (Benvolio) totally stole the show with their incredible acting, great physical humour, and beautiful and strong singing voices.

Connell (Romeo) and Halliday (Juliet) were a joyfully perfect pair and played a playful interpretation of young love. Unfortunately I wasn't able to see the death scene because of a really strange staging choice which I think Dean and Laredo should reconsider before the season continues much further. It is the climax of the whole play so losing it for most of the audience by this odd placement seems a waste of everyone's time.

The script has been severely dismembered to just the highlights in order to make the show one act and also to fit in the Melbourne Shakespeare Company's trademark song battles and random Luhrmannesque pop song interludes. For the most part the music works and Colley has chosen an intriguingly ecclectic and sometimes outrightly hilarious mix of music to punctuate moments. The greatest triumph of the night is the cast rendition of 'Hallelujah'.

Romeo & Juliet is a feast of beauty and fun. Technically it is a work of perfection. It is really just a string of contradicting artistic decisions which lets it down.

Take along a picnic dinner and remember to take lots of water to stay hydrated. Romeo & Juliet will win your hearts.

3.5 Stars

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