Friday, September 27, 2013

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Kip Williams, designer David Fleischer, lighting by Nicholas Rayment, sound by Alan John.  Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre 25 September - 2 November, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 25

As Tybalt, Paris and Romeo lay dead in the Capulet Tomb, and Juliet, revived from a death-imitating drug, told Friar Laurence “Go, get thee hence, for I will not away”, I found myself thinking “She’s on her own now...why can’t she go her own way now?”   And indeed, in this version, she mourns her cousin Tybalt, kisses the poisoned lips of her husband Romeo, and as in Shakespeare’s script ignores the body of Paris entirely.

Paris, rather than toting a sword in this modern scenario, had brought a pistol, saying to Romeo “Obey, and go with me; for thou must die.”  “I must indeed; and therefore came I hither,” responds Romeo, but Paris would not leave him alone in peace.  Hiding among the graves, Romeo managed to escape the gunfire, caught Paris by surprise, disarmed him and shot him dead.

But should Juliet die?  After all, she has said “I will kiss thy lips; / Haply some poison yet doth hang on them, to make me die with a restorative.”  Maybe she lives after all, to do what I would expect her to do: tell her father exactly what she thinks of him, even threatening to shoot him with Paris’ revolver, and then come forward to speak to us.

Before the play began she had spoken the words of the Chorus in the Prologue, about how the “continuance of their parents’ rage, / Which but their children’s end, nought could remove, / Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage; / The which if you with patient ears attend, / What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”

We do not see Juliet die on this stage.  Instead of “O happy dagger! / This is thy sheath; / there rust, and let me die;” instead of the Watch, The Prince, the Friar, Capulet and Lady Capulet, Montague describing his wife dying from “Grief of my son’s exile”, taking up a long page and a half of script talking in the presence of the four dead bodies – Juliet speaks briefly, taking up the theme of Shakespeare’s final words “Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things; / Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished: / For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Maybe we are seeing Juliet’s spirit speaking, as Emeritus Professor Penny Gay suggests in her essay Juliet Speaks reproduced in the program:  Looking more closely at what [Shakespeare] actually wrote, we might argue that the play is more interested in the impossible cultural position of the eloquent young woman, who knows what she wants and speaks of it without fear; argues for her right to it; and, in so doing, produces poetry that is the equal of that of any of the most passionate heroes in Shakespeare.

Surely this is the intention behind Kip Williams’ direction of this play in a modern setting and style – a great success, though certain to cause “more talk” both of “these sad things” and probably also of the issue of “updating” Shakespeare.

In fact the use of today’s “rave” music and everyday costumes, though at first not easily related to Shakespeare’s language, and references to swords and The Prince, did not update the play in the same sense as other recent productions have done – such as we saw in the recent film of Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes.  The difference lies in the nature of a movie – which we naturally see as if it is real and present – compared with a stage play, which we know to be a theatrical contrivance.

As the Prologue tells us we are here to watch a play, so the players have the freedom to create a world in our imaginations as we listen to the words, see the movement, mime and set design, hear the music and sound effects, and so on.  It’s the old injunction to suspend our disbelief.  If the theatrical devices are designed and performed well, then you can play Shakespeare as if it were in his period of history, or in ours, or in a setting mixing elements from different times and places.

This production does the third option very well.  It is not long before we find ourselves engaged in a world where young men are just not very sensible, fun-loving but too often unable to see the consequences of their actions; where older men, having grown up from such young men, become tribal, authoritarian and vicious – unless they can stand outside themselves and see things more clearly from a monkish cell, as Friar Laurence does; and where women like Juliet’s mother are forced to accept the dominance of men, or like Juliet’s Nurse learn to take life as it comes with all the necessary compromises, or like Juliet have to take huge risks to stand up for what she wants.

The staging device of the two ringed revolve is very effective as it transports us as smoothly as Shakespeare’s Globe ever did from scene to scene.  If there was a sense of something missing, it was because there was no traditional physical balcony.

The acting was expert throughout, so that not only was there clarity of language (made better by the unobtrusive microphones), but every word was spoken with the character’s intention made clear to us – hooray for Stanislavski.  I’m going to have to set up some jealousy by mentioning Eamon Farren (a brilliant Mercutio), Julie Forsyth (a wonderful comic Nurse, but with a real tenderness coming through the rough exterior), and by making special mention of Eryn Jean Norvill who made the play hers as Juliet, and made it Juliet’s play for us.

For some, this production may be controversial.  For me it was just fascinating.