Head versus Heart: Review of STC’s Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently staged plays so it is an absolute delight that director Kip Williams and the Sydney Theatre Company have managed to put together a very original and elegant production.
Williams has done some streamlining to reduce the significance of the family rivalry, and in the process has eliminated the patriarchs of the Montague family. This very much pushes the Capulets’ to the fore and subsequently places a greater emphasis on Juliet. It is a nice choice as she is arguably the more interesting character. She is the one fighting social pressure. Romeo seemingly has a higher level of freedom, he cruises the streets with his mates when he isn’t mooning around the stage in love. Juliet however is imprisoned in a system set up by her parents and society. It is against this context that she makes a conscious attempt to escape its confines.
The staging reinforces this idea. For the first two acts a huge interior space is created on a rotating platform. Inside we have a grand ballroom with chandelier, pillars and huge casement windows. In rotation, the entire space provided an external (yet confined) area, and allowed for some elegant scene transitions; one especially striking transition occurred when the room turned to reveal the masquerade ball: helium balloons were anchored to the stage and the actors were dressed in black-tie and rabbit masks, making for a sleek yet slightly disturbing scene. The significance of this confined space is only made clear after the intermission. When the audience returns the walls are gone, the stage now empty, creating a huge void. Romeo and Juliet are now married. They have achieved ‘freedom’, but to what end? With the murder of Tybalt and Mercutio things go awry and we realize that Juliet has escaped only to find herself alone and desperately isolated. The huge space emphasizes this well. This comes to a head (visually) during her Act IV monologue just before she takes the sleeping draught. She stands in a wedding dress atop her bed, and with a single spot light, she is almost swallowed whole by the surrounding void of darkness – it is a visually striking and moving moment.
Eryn Jean Norvill as Juliet was brilliant in her role, and was highly successful in producing the head thinking Juliet, a young woman of logic. Norvill was very much in control of the dramatic scenes: the disastrous revelations of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment were heartbreaking. Norvill was faultless in language, form and substance. She can only be criticised for a slightly contrived approach to the balcony scene which was a tad overplayed. Dylan Young who played the dashing young Romeo was equal to our heroine. Young arguably produced one of the standout performances for the evening. Whilst Romeo is one of the more straightforward characters, Young handled it with grace and produced a natural passion for the role.
Josh McConville as Tybalt was well cast as this dangerous skinhead, emotionally unstable especially when on the drink. McConville with his hulking physique is a threatening figure on stage, and appears more than willing to slice you into pieces if you give him as much as a thumb. McConville unfortunately suffered in his final scene but this was arguably a directorial flaw.
Now the case of Mercutio, played by Eamon Farren was somewhat puzzling. Farren had all the right ideas for Mercutio, playfully brazen with a marvellous quick temper; and certainly, he maintained a high energy throughout. Yet the execution did not fully realise the characterisation. Farren was too hyperactive in the role. Consequently, Farren did not demonstrate that Mercutio was (and is) the most intelligent of characters within the story. This ultimately affected his final moments. However, this entire scene appeared under-rehearsed or just lacking in innovation. Generally, Mercutio’s final speech and the two fights were underwhelming. This was partly due to the average fight choreography with rather subpar performance. It is unfortunate as this is arguably one of the best scenes in the play.
As the Nurse, Julie Forsyth produced an enjoyable and hilarious bit part. It was joyfully caricatured (again the phrase ‘a tad overdone’ comes to mind) yet the actress demonstrated great insight during her more emotional moments, especially in discovering the dead Juliet.
Amongst the smaller roles, the cast held their own well. The STC veteran Colin Moody played Capulet with the towering presence of a brutish father. Anna Lise Phillips as Lady Capulet produced the classic but effective white trash, bottle dyed trophy wife. She was quite often tipsy but possessed a streak of deep-seated loneliness. As Paris, Alexander England was aesthetically pleasing but could have taken more time to deliver his lines with greater meaning and differentiation. Akos Armont played Benvolio without much of the usual meek characterisation. This was not a bad thing. In fact, he produced a nicely balanced and ultimately moderate boy, a choice which paid off. Mitchell Bufel did a deft job as Friar Laurence though he was disadvantaged by serving as a plot device for this production.
The only major drawback form this production may be in the play’s conclusion. Before Juliet has a chance to end her life her mother and father arrive in the tomb and entreat her to stay her hand. Williams has given Juliet the Prince’s final words: ‘See what scourge is laid upon your joys with love. All are punish’d.’ This could have been a powerful moment, one last conscious, calm, deliberate and defiant act against her overbearing parents before taking her life … and yet she does not. Williams’ Juliet lives, (or at most her fate is ambiguous). This seems a strange choice given Williams’ interpretation of the text: Juliet as a character can be seen as trying to escape the future predetermined for her. Romeo and the love they have for each other provide an opportunity for such escape and she grabs it. But these lovers are ‘star crossed’, they cannot escape their fate, indeed the only real escape from societal constriction is in death. Arguably Williams creates a more tragic ending with Juliet denied this final peace and doomed to a life of total isolation. Some punters may appreciate this idea, but no doubt it will split audiences. Some will feel that William’s Juliet is denied the final act of rebellion. It is a shame that the last thirty seconds of the play detract from the rest of an otherwise fantastic production which is vivacious and colourful in undertaking. Special thanks should be reserved for David Fleischer for his inspired set design and Alan Johns’ dynamic soundtrack.
This production of Romeo and Juliet is almost at end closing on the 2nd of November, nevertheless tickets are still available and further details can be found here: