By John Pendergast

Some would say that it’s hard to put a new twist on the much-performed Romeo & Juliet, however Fresh Theatre for Social Change’s production captures the essence of Shakespeare’s classic play in a new and interesting way.

For those who didn’t study Romeo & Juliet at school (including, like me, watching the Leo and Claire movie many, many times), the show tells the tragic story of these star-crossed lovers who come from feuding families. Although sometimes seen as romantic, the story of Romeo and Juliet is far sadder, especially when you take into account the fact that Romeo was around 16 and Juliet was just 13. Spoiler alert, there are several deaths throughout the show and the way this is handled is often an indicator of the quality of the production.

It should be noted, firstly, that Fresh Theatre’s production of this show was in an outdoor performance space in Ringwood known as The Backyard. Although designed like this pre-pandemic, this meant that they were able to handle current COVID restrictions in such a way that things almost felt ‘normal’.

The ensemble of performers in this production was well put together and there were no real weak performances. Liam Papic’s Romeo had a sullen teenager attitude, in a good way. The emotional rollercoaster his character took through the play was handled well, with the contrast between his affections towards Juliet and his pure rage when attacking Tybalt were particularly impressive. Although Emily Tambree’s Juliet initially came across as naïve, this suited the true age of the character, and as the show built, her performance brought out more and more emotion, culminating in a particularly spell-binding scene after she makes up her mind to fake her death so she can be with Romeo.

Other stand out performances include Maeve Hook whose Mercutio was utterly engaging and her final scene was heartbreaking. Mercutio is often portrayed as being constantly angry, however Hook brought a real range of emotions to the part. Mark Anderson’s Peter would have been considered a small part; however his comic relief was beautifully handled and added to the overall emotional rollercoaster the audience is taken on. And Michelle Robertson’s performance as Friar added a much-needed balance to the emotional high of Romeo and Juliet. Robertson was able to provide a grounded, solid character that both her fellow performers and the audience could rely on for keeping the show from becoming too manic.

Special mention also needs to go to the live musicians who performed an original live score throughout. Not only were they high quality performers, the mood created by them really built upon what the actors were bringing to the stage.

As director, Shaz Mullens has obviously worked well with her cast to bring out unique characters who the audience was able to connect to. Mullens, who also performed in the production as Nurse, brought a vision that allowed Shakespeare’s original words to be used in a modern adaptation without the need to greatly change them. She has obviously worked with her cast to ensure they all understood what they were saying as, at times, the language used by Shakespeare can be difficult to relate to in a modern context.

The performance space itself meant that very little set was required. Instead, the use of the various pieces already installed in the space, including the staircase and fence, as well as using a variety of exit/entrance locations and the allowed the audience to feel much more immersed in the show. The overall feel of the space lent itself to this modern adaptation and created a real grungy feel.

The lighting used suited the production well with, in general, a constant flood of the entire space until towards the end where the use of torches in the blacked-out space really lent itself to the dark and depressing mood of the end of the show. The choice of using a handheld light which came on part way through the final death scene did take away from some of the performance in that scene, however this may be something that will be corrected in future performances. The sound was, unfortunately, not as professional as the rest of the show, with mics either not being on or being far too loud. There were also multiple instances where the balance of the audio was poor and mics were not individually adjusted correctly for the performer. However, given last week’s snap lockdown in Melbourne, the techs may have had less time to balance this correctly, so hopefully this will be improved as the season goes on.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this production of Romeo & Juliet and would definitely recommend it. Being able to be back seeing performances again is such a privilege here in Victoria, so I would encourage you to get out there and support companies like Fresh Theatre for Social Change. And when the production is of such a high quality as this one, supporting these companies is even easier!