Romeo and Juliet endures as one of William Shakespeare’s greatest works. It has been adapted, examined, pulled apart, and put back together. It’s been given the big-screen treatment more than once, and memorably, recently, was contemporised by Baz Luhrmann. Yet there’s still room for Sydney Theatre Company’s urgent study of the piece, brought sublimely into the present by Kip Williams.
In all the blush of youth, this Romeo (Dylan Young) and Juliet (Eryn Jean Norvill) are smitten, blushing, awkward and tremendous in their joy at having found each other, and of experiencing that spark of instant chemistry for the first time. This production blushes, laughs, and loves with them, enveloping the two title characters in an impossibly warm and charming first act before it all begins to unravel.
It’s a smartly trimmed-down production; the staging (by David Fleischer) with music and lighting by (Alan John and Nicholas Rayment, respectively) delivers exposition as well as the Prince and the full prologue, as well as the opening scenes, so they are jettisoned. Instead we are treated to a music video montage, a Skins-esque study of the bored, the rich, the endless nights of excess, to open the piece. Romeo’s crew has been edited to just kinsman Benvolio (Akos Armont) and wildcard friend Mercutio (Eamon Farren); his parents aren’t seen, and don’t need to be, because this production tells a slightly different story in its editing.
This production wants to talk about Juliet and her suffocating life, a princess locked in the tower and her father Capulet (Colin Moody) holding the key. Not yet fourteen and ruled by her house, she is in a complicated position as her father woos Paris (Alexander England), who she clearly has no interest in, on her behalf during a game of squash. Moody is a fine Capulet, but for the first act one might wonder why such a formidable actor was cast in this role – until the second act, where Capulet becomes a menacing, bubbling pot of tension.
His daughter will marry Paris, grief over slain Tybalt (a menacing, burning Josh McConville) be damned, or else she will be cast away. As we veer toward the famous ending, Capulet’s iron ruling of his daughter is thrown into an unexpected light, and Moody delivers the aching tumor of love for a daughter and an arrogant narrowsightedness that could only ever end in tragedy with a heartbroken inevitability.
Romeo, without the presence of parents onstage, is counselled by Benvolio (Armont brings a gravitas and a quiet emotional core that becomes so important to the play), Meructio (Farren is perfectly cast, a light of youth and insolence and ultimately a product of his environment) and Friar Lawrence (a weary and wonderful Mitchell Butel). He is free, relatively speaking, to act in his own mind and will, and he does, forgetting Rosaline with abandon to foster Juliet as his new obsession. His gung-ho naïve sensitivity is well-crafted and directed, and as he warms to Juliet, the audience warms to him.
Without the clatter of excess Montagues, Benvolio and Mercutio become each other’s most constant companion, and in the second act, when Mercutio is slain, it’s all the more heartbreaking – even a little more so for Benvolio than it is for Romeo, because the sense of it is always there, that as long as Juliet is all right, then so will Romeo be.
Juliet is a superb burst of light, and Norvill is stunning, the true gem of the piece; her Juliet is raw and young and uncompromisingly passionate, but Norvill plays her with an innate sense of how much is too much. Juliet laughs and makes faces at her verbal missteps, but she feels her loneliness in her cavernous bedroom, and later in her early tomb, with a brokenness that telegraphs as real as it ever could. If Juliet often seems like a character without control of her own life, as everyone else’s property, well at least this Juliet is aware of it, and as she learns gradually just how much she does not have her own agency, we understand her in ways we may not have previously. This production wants to get to know Juliet, shows her as her own person, shows how she never really had the chance to be that person, and it’s chilling, and truly tragic, and makes this new staging deeply necessary.
Fleischer’s design is commendable, and follows on from STC’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to be yet another welcome and pleasant surprise revival of old spaces. A revolving set in the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre creates a sense of time and place with real and specific energy, and the open and empty spaces contrast with this to let the actors, just people dwarfed by white blank space, demonstrate how our tragedies are only biggest to ourselves.
Going into this production, the question it needed to answer was: “Is this a revival worth staging?” The answer to that question is resoundingly, emotionally, yes. This production of Romeo and Juliet moves and touches like few other recent Shakespearean outings in Sydney have managed; this production is worthwhile, and valuable, and new.