It is a rare thing to feel reassured about a production from the opening couple of moments, but if any production this year did, it was Kip Williams' version of Romeo and Juliet. The stage is black, and there is a huge wall that we are unaware of until it starts to rotate; a few seconds later and we see it is part of a cube, the inside of which is a lavish white set. Our first sight is a rambunctious party going on, where the Montagues are half-tearing up the place. Mercutio, for instance, is swinging from a chandelier. Loud music is playing, alcohol is being consumed, and all will not end well. Instead of hearing about thumbs being bitten ("Ay, I bite my thumb, sir") and the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets steamrolling on itself, we instead get a montage of sorts, or a dumbshow. Josh McConville plays Tybalt, and takes upon himself the majority of the bickering that will ensue, finding himself matched against Benvolio (Akos Armont) and Mercutio. (Williams has cut down the number of characters considerably, and any extraneous persons never make it to the stage.)
Mercutio (Eamon Farren), Benvolio (Akos Armont), and Romeo (Dylan Young). Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.
It is an exciting, even if slightly cliche, way to start a play. But it is a cliche – that of loud music and so on – that is done remarkably well, and one does not rail against it. Soon we are introduced to the other characters, such as Romeo (Dylan Young), Juliet (Eryn Jean Norvill), and Paris (Alexander England), as well as the adults, such as Capulet (Colin Moody), Lady Capulet (Anna Lise Phillips), their nurse (Julie Forsyth) and Friar Laruence (Mitchell Butel). An excellent cast if ever there was one. (Indeed, the young Montagues make up most of the young male actors in Sydney that have been on this critic's radar for some time now, impressing in their other productions.) The cliches soon end, though, and are replaced by clever directorial and interpretative decisions that make the text come to life – this is a Romeo and Juliet brought cleanly into modern times, although slightly damaged where the poisons are concerned. When Capulet is negotiating with Paris about an imminent wedding with Juliet – asking him to have patience – he does so during a game of squash, the ball whacking against one of the white walls as they banter back and forth. The Friar, a plant enthusiast, is first found in a greenhouse, the begowned and barechested Butel spraying his greenery with care and concern as he deals with the hormonal Romeo. The party is modern, with rabbit masks being worn and helium balloons being scattered and anchored to the ground. It is all very modern, and one gets the sense of the privilege, style, and power that these two houses must have commanded.
The problem I had, however, was that the production goes slightly off the rails in the second half. Indeed, one can't imagine a more starkly delineated set of two halves in recent memory. Where the spinning brightness of the white on the inside, black on the outside, cube was the dominant feature of the first half, it is rather gone in the second; all we are left with is a blank stage occasionally filled with a bed, at least until the final scenes in the tomb. The problem is that it feels like at least half the energy of the production – all the bravado of the Montagues, all the humour of the nurse and her trials and plans, etc – is sucked right out of it. Which is somewhat of an unfair criticism to make, one thinks, because the play itself is designed in such a way – comedy giving way sharply to tragedy. But it jars when one watches it, and one wishes that Williams had been a bit more subtle in introducing the darker elements of the evening. Just because we know it is a tragedy, after all, doesn't mean that an audience wants it thrust in our faces before its fully happened to its characters.
Highlights, however, were many, and to mention them all would be tiresome and lengthy. Eamon Farren as Mercutio steals the show, though, and makes one understand one theory about why Shakespeare killed him off so early. (The theory goes that Shakespeare was, obviously, writing all the characters, and knew he needed Romeo at the end, but found that Mercutio was becoming the bigger and more interesting personality, and that if he didn't get rid of him quickly enough, Mercutio's presence would therefore unbalance the play.) Mercutio's death (spoiler alert!) is the most affecting of the lot, and his Queen Mab monologue earlier in the night is cause for celebration. Dylan Young captures Romeo's urges, but Young's take on the character was a more subdued, dreamy type, as opposed to other more boisterous versions. (Romeo is, after all, quite the dreamer to begin with.) Norvill as Juliet, however, especially in the final moments, proves herself a talent to watch, while all the older cast fit snugly into their respective roles, and do them great justice.
I don't think the production is perfect, but there is much – much – to be enjoyed within it.