North Sea Boat Terminals’ reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is budding with interesting and daring ideas that ask the audience to think about this tale of woe in new ways. It’s not just modernisation, not just deconstruction, although the adaptation does both.
The storyline and much of the essential dialogue remains, but has been condensed and then pulled apart slightly to allow for some stylistic breathing room. The original cast of a dozen or so has been shrunk to four actors, two playing the eponymous characters, and two playing all the rest.
Director Sarah McKellar and her team of performer-devisers have boldly stripped away many of Romeo and Juliet’s conventions and have turned much of the action and drama into a kind of horseplay. There are some excellent moments of fun and surprise interspersed throughout, and the team takes many opportunities to do something different with the script, to approach scenes from different angles and to work against the obvious. For example, there’s a very clever dance scene set to “Kiss” by Prince where the actors use jackets and coats as dance partners and in another scene, after Romeo’s banishment, the other three actors fold letters to Romeo into paper airplanes and launch them in his direction.
For the most part, this kind of physical theatre approach worked well, seemed well-integrated with the storytelling, and didn’t feel overwrought. Conversely, there were times when innovation was sidelined for a more conventional interpretation of certain sections of the script; strangely enough it was these scenes that felt out of context and too heavily played. It would be wonderful to see those scenes given the same outside-the-box treatment so that every turn in the action shows us a Romeo and Juliet we’ve never seen before.
Lucy Clements gives Juliet a kind of tomboyish defiance, as though she’s only just barely started to think about boys as love interests rather than just playmates. She’s not a weepy, wistful Juliet, which keeps the performance fresh and natural. Her Romeo, played by Andy Ryan, is a simple, sweet creature, who looks like he couldn’t harm a fly, so it comes as a kind of shock when he gets kicked out of town. Jonathan Best as Juliet’s father and Friar Laurence (and other various characters) commands with a booming voice, rallying the room right from the start and then reassures as the mild and well-meaning Friar. He and Ellen O’Connor as the Nurse (and other various characters) have tough jobs covering so many essential parts, but they handle the task very well, and O’Connor is especially fluid and focused in her many guises. She is obviously capable of great range, which is wonderfully displayed here.
The ensemble uses puppets (created by Chloe Flockheart) as avatars of Romeo and Juliet, which are integrated into the action, sometimes in place of the actors, sometimes simultaneously with them. Their inclusion was successful to a degree, but at times they were puzzling and slightly distracting; however, with further development and perhaps even more integration with the character work, the puppets have the potential to make North Sea Boat Terminals’ adaptation of Romeo and Juliet truly unique and special.
There are plenty of smart, successful ideas in R&J; this young team is headed in the right direction and are poised to make a special niche for themselves in the Perth theatre market. This is a playful, youthful and hopeful look at Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.