While the text of Romeo and Juliet may have been in existence for hundreds of years, audience members who snapped up a ticket to Dionysus Theatre’s recent production of the William Shakespeare classic were exposed to a new take on the material.

Although adding something different to a Shakespeare show is hardly an untested experiment, it is more common in professional theatre and less-so on the amateur or community stage. Seeing the opportunity to develop a new concept around a work in the public domain, Emma Sproule (director) pursued her ideas and brought them to the stage with a cast willing to try something new. Although the plot remained untouched, two modern characters were inserted into the drama to comment and learn from the events that unfold in front of them.

I spoke to Sproule and the two actors playing the new characters before the show opened to gauge their feelings on the idea of development of theatre in the public domain, and what the concept of their production did for one of these plays.

Madeline Rintoul, playing the new character of Sam, explains the purpose and function of the two additional characters.

“Our new characters, Sam and Greg, have the rather unique function of bridging the gap between the audience and the characters. Obviously, we are ourselves characters who are telling the story of Romeo and Juliet to each other, but we exist outside of the story, and this means that we get to react to it. In doing this, we add another layer to the show, because we show not only the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet, but we also examine the immense power that a story can have.”

“It’s fair to say that we don’t add anything new to the plot of Romeo and Juliet – in fact, the entire point really is that we can’t. This story is over 400 years old, and is one of the most well-known in history, so you can’t just go around re-writing it. However, I think it’s also fair to say that we do more than just comment on the unfolding events.”

Rintoul confesses to having some reservations about the concept when it was first explained to her, but any uncertain feelings have long since given way to a willingness to try her hand at something new and previously unexplored.

“I’ll admit that I was definitely a little apprehensive when I was first asked to play Sam. The role had been explained to me, and I got to try my hand at the general idea of the character during the audition, but it is still a bit daunting knowing that you will be performing such a well-known show in a rather obscure capacity. However, this apprehension was definitely overshadowed by my excitement. From the moment the role was described, I was incredibly excited and intrigued to see how the character would develop, and to see just what our function in the story would become.”

“One of the best things about playing new characters has just been developing them. Unlike the other characters in the show, we didn’t have anything to work off to figure out who the characters are, meaning they could be anyone we want them to be. […] It’s really been incredible to see the characters go from being described in a few paragraphs in the audition booklet, to being complete enough to write a biography on, and, most importantly, just as real as any other character.”

Mitchell Sholer, the other actor entrusted with director Emma Sproule’s ambitious vision, was incredibly excited to bring the new elements of the show to life.

“I will admit to being overjoyed at any acting opportunity, but the idea of playing a character that is unique to the play, [and] unique to myself was something else entirely. Though Greg started off as Emma’s idea, she informed me that by the time it was being performed the character would be very much my own and to me that screamed rarity. It is not often that a director gives you the foundations of a character and allows you to evolve it.”

Sproule commented on her strong belief in re-imagining shows in the public domain, and the necessity of updating stories to keep audiences interested in their content.

“I love the experience of seeing a story I already know through another director’s eyes. I love being presented with a different perspective or focus that may not have been my previous understanding or experience of the text. Shakespeare continues to be brilliant for directors on this front. Ben Jonson proved to be unnervingly prophetic when he claimed of his contemporary, ‘He was not of an age, but for all time.’ Romeo & Juliet is over 400 years old and shows no sign of losing its momentum, and the same can be said for virtually all of Shakespeare’s body of work. However, I cannot imagine our intrigue and interest would have been maintained over such an extended period of time without constant re-imagining, re-inventing and re-interpreting. That’s how we make something timeless.”

Although not suitable for every amateur company out there, seeing groups like Dionysus move away from the expected form of storytelling is a welcome anomaly. I look forward to a time when staged works in the public domain are chosen for performance by amateur groups as regularly as professional ones, and I can’t wait  to see the new opinions and ideas that come out of different interpretations.