By Karyn Hodgkinson
Romeo and Juliet is an example of Shakespeare’s extraordinary understanding of the human condition in all its goodness, malevolence and complexity. He taps into the very soul of ambition and guilt (Macbeth), jealousy (Othello), revenge (Hamlet), justice and mercy (Merchant of Venice), evil (Richard III), virtue (Cordelia, Desdemona, Hermione) foolish old age, (King Lear) and here in Romeo and Juliet, the ecstasy and misery of young love. Furthermore we see Shakespeare’s mastery of comedy and tragedy in almost equal measure in this play.
The Australian Shakespeare Company has been treating us to outdoor productions since 1987. This time, upon entering the Botanic Gardens space, we are greeted with a visually inviting set consistent with the lavish Indian/Bollywood feel of the production – an open stage with large wooden barn-like doors, with walls covered in huge floral wallpaper and a lovely foliage covered upper balcony.
The first half of the programme is highly energetic and joyous. Syd Brisbane as the delightful Peter, opens with a clever prologue, not of Shakespeare’s devising. This whets our appetite for what is to come. But first, the creative team must be congratulated: the fight choreography by Scott Jackson is enthralling, with the actors, swords in hand, giving their all. The lavish costume design by Karla Erenbots, draws on Indian/South Asian traditional styles, creating a sense that Romeo and Juliet could be anywhere. A highlight of the night was the Capulet’s party scenes where the glittering costumes, Bollywood style dancing and music combine to give us a wonderful festive experience. Sue-Ellen Shook’s choreography is inspired, as is the music and sound design by Paul Norton. The moving original song, Love is not Love, from Shakespearean sonnets, provides a fitting contrast to the upbeat proceedings.
Wolfgang Reed as Romeo, Alex Cooper as Benvolio and Paul Morris as Mercutio make a mischievous but loyal Montague threesome, and Khisraw Jones-Shukoor is memorable as the malevolent Tybalt. The Benvolio and Mercutio drunken scene after the celebrations is particularly funny and Paul Morris is powerfully unpredictable, indeed mercurial, as Mercutio. Wolfgang Reed as Romeo, so given to falling in love, gives a nuanced performance where we could believe that he truly loves Juliet.
Alison Whyte plays the warm-hearted Nurse with an earthiness aided by a distinctive broad Australian accent. To her credit, Whyte’s strong presence in the play, makes the Nurse seem like a lead role. I heard this character say things I hadn’t noticed in the script before. However I wondered if Whyte and others, playing in this large outdoor space, knowing that they need to be heard, force their voices a little too much. The sound quality is excellent, thanks to Joshua Sunderland’s sound operation, so we can hear clearly, despite sitting at the back, as I was.
After the interval, the tragedy really takes hold. Tiffany Wong, seems to be more of a 21st century Juliet with her rebelliousness and lack of propriety. She unfortunately delivers her lines forcefully and on the same emotional note throughout. In fact here most of the characters seemed to take on the same rhythms, angst and volume as each other. By this stage in the performance I found myself longing for quiet moments of pause, silence or reflection. It was also perplexing as to why Lady Capulet, played by Nicole Nabout, had the job of cruelly and too lengthily bullying Juliet into marrying Paris. Yes, a difficult mother-daughter relationship but it seemed too much, coming out of nowhere.
This said, this is an imaginative production, full of energy, spectacle, light and colour. Drinks, wine, and snacks are available, making it a unique and enjoyable evening out.