It’s difficult to avoid viewing Romeo and Juliet as a cynic. Shakespeare’s early tragedy is melodramatic and fully committed to the possibility of love at first sight. Modern viewers might instead feel tempted to sit Romeo down and tell him relationships are hard, love fades and he could probably benefit from a year travelling abroad before settling down with someone he just met.
Contemporary love stories seem to emphasise the point that relationships are hard work. The central dilemma is often, what to do when puppy love turns to begrudging tolerance. Recent MTC productions Lungs and Deborah Bruce’s The Distance choose to focus on the mundanity of relationships and why we might choose to leave our partners. Shakespeare’s is a play that wants to drag its audience into the messy middle of forbidden love.
Right from the outset, Bell Shakespeare Company are set on reviving the spirit of Shakespeare in the Arts Centre’s Fairfax studio. Head of costume Rosie Hodge has high-waisted pants and corsets that evoke 17th century Verona and the Malthouse Theatre’s set and props create an aesthetic befitting the period.
The play even opens with the prologue from the original script, which establishes a distancing effect for the audience: we’re made aware that we’re watching actors perform a production of a fictional tale. To increase the meta-aspects, the boisterous Sampson seats himself in the stands with audience at one point, Mercutio winks and hams it up for the crowd, delighting in extra cheers and applause. It becomes clear that, instead of whisking the audience away to Verona, artistic director Peter Evans wants to recreate the experience of watching Shakespeare as it was meant to be seen—an ambitious undertaking which leaves the escapist effect of the drama up to its actors.
One of the significant things about Romeo and Juliet that it starts out as a comedy and, with the death of Mercutio, takes a sharp turn into drama. Bell Shakespeare really emphasise the two genres, as the first half is filled with sexual innuendos and horseplay. As the Nurse, Michelle Doake is a crowd favourite, getting the biggest laughs clearly having a great time with her lines. Damien Strouthos as Mercutio, and a regular performer with the troupe, allows some of Shakespeare’s metaphors to soar with his speeches.
Justin Stewart Cotta and Angie Milliken as Lord and Lady Capulet show their dramatic strengths in the latter half of the play which, admittedly, is the weaker half in this production. Cotta’s commanding presence is nicely undercut by his devastation at discovering his daughter’s drug-induced stupor, while Milliken, at first a distant caregiver, is heartbreaking to watch when she realises she’s lost a daughter she never had much time for in the first place.
Where the leads are concerned, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. In his first production with the company, Alex Williams is a moody, intense Romeo whose physicality is strong, evidenced in the vicious sword fights (movement and fight director Nigel Poulton’s work is excellent) to swinging from balconies, but his romantic attraction to Juliet isn’t quite convincing enough. He retains a kind of swagger where he should be giddy with love; he’s less a romantic and more a cool, detached guy playing a romantic. Opposite him, Kelly Paterniti has a fully realised interpretation of Juliet. For Paterniti, Juliet’s early adolescence is her defining characteristic. Each line is performed with a kind of immaturity that suggests Juliet isn’t sure of what she’s getting into. Lines laden with feeling are turned whimsical or irritable—the famous ‘Wherefore art thou, Romeo’ soliloquy is played like a girl writing a diary entry about her crush. It’s an intriguing interpretation that unfortunately saps some of the drama out of the relationship, ultimately letting the dramatic turn of events feel incongruous.
Bell Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet is dependent upon whether or not the audience is enchanted by the ambiance they attempt to evoke in the theatre. There’s something incredibly charming about a Shakespeare production that remains in its original, historical context, and for the most part this is all working very well. Unfortunately, a second half that drags and some misfiring chemistry between the actors make for an uneven viewing experience.