SINGULARLY ATTRACTIVE AND SKILFULLY STAGED
ROMEO & JULIET
by William Shakespeare
directed by Kacie Stetson
at Unitec Theatre, Entry 1, Carrington Rd, Mt Albert, Auckland
From 1 Jun 2012 to 8 Jun 2012
Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 3 Jun 2012
Some things don't change and I have to say I'm sweet with that. Walking in the dark down the ramp to the UNITEC Theatre was, in a way, a bit like coming home. I hadn't been there for some years but the recollection of productions from the late 90s featuring a group of young actors who are now staples on our stage and screen was most enjoyable.
As I waited in the foyer, unchanged in all that time, and gazed at the timeless portrait of a young Murray Hutchinson, I reflected on the importance of acknowledging our theatrical roots and recognising the impact of those who have gone before. My mind wandered to an excellent production of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses and a young Jacqueline Nairn, now a regular on Shortland Street, playing the Marquise de Merteuil, a role that should have been quite beyond her at that time but quite simply wasn't, and I had cause to rethink the role of drama schools in our 21st century theatre milieu.
The performance space is also largely unchanged, a wonderful black box where the magic of youth and performance can be celebrated.
UNITEC Department of Performing and Screen Arts 2012 Shakespeare season presents a mammoth challenge for all concerned. The third year acting group have been divided into two houses and it's to be hoped neither has a curse on it. The boys in the company undertake Titus Andronicus and the girls tackle Romeo and Juliet, head on.
Described as Romeo and Juliet – a reduction – ‘because love transcends', this work is staged on an attractive set comprised of two tall graffiti-covered flats, a rostrum with ramp left and stairs right and a circular raised area on and around which the central action occurs.
The performance begins before the play proper with the setting of props, actors moving around dressed in carefully selected but seemingly random 15th century Romantic garb, the placing and tuning of various musical instruments, all to the accompaniment of a loud and intentionally intrusive clock (Jaz Davis's excellent sound design), and some jolly fine lighting (design by Amber Molloy).
The production is clearly something of a tongue-in-cheek paradox with all Shakespeare's wonderful roles – male and female – played by women; women who were, in Shakespeare's time, not permitted on the stage at all. Prior to arriving I had wondered, having a particular interest in how things are gendered, whether the women would play the male characters as women or as faux men. The answer is clear in the costuming - and in the performances - that these characters would, without doubt, be played as gender-specific, spunky young guys. More of that later ...
The brief given director Kacie Stetson by John G Davies, Curriculum Leader Live Performance, was that the production be no longer than eighty minutes with the actors contributing towards choosing the play from the entire canon and also being party to cutting the text. The designers' brief was to ensure that the productions had a workshop feel. All requirements are achieved with aplomb.
The text is cleverly cut to ensure that the star-crossed lovers remain at the centre of the action while ensuring that the entire ensemble is adequately catered for. The gender binary is sustained with the young women playing the male characters, managing a ballsy if androgynous look.
Mercutio (Amanda Tito) is a magnificent role with great lines, great humour, a fiery temper and a world shattering demise. He is Romeo's good buddy and has the significant advantage of being neither a Capulet nor a Montague, so is without familial loyalty. Tucked away in the early part of the play, the actor has to deal with the treacherous ‘Queen Mab' speech and this Tito delivers splendidly. Her performance throughout, and in particular her sexual taunting of Tybalt (Laura-Jean Bainbridge) as ‘The King of Cats', is richly scented with irony and wears a rich stream of melancholy. This wi fine work from this young actor.
The role of Romeo (Alexandra Wylie) is fraught and many actors fall in to the trap of playing him simply as a young, star-struck romantic lead so it is refreshing to experience a passionate and unpredictable interpretation with Wylie easily able to ‘turn her emotions on a sixpence' and thus be completely credible in her wooing of Juliet (Rebekah Brady) on the one hand, and her impassioned killing of Tybalt on the other.
Benvolio, Romeo's sensitive cousin, is often over-shadowed by the other roles but Chye-Ling Huang takes every opportunity and creates a memorably empathic performance out of the quiet peacemaker.
The plot, of course, hinges on an un-explained dispute between the Veronese houses of Montague and Capulet. This feud erupts violently in a street fight between the lithe and nimble Mercutio and Lady Capulet's zealous nephew Tybalt,which ends with both of them dead. There is a bit of quipping and quibbling and the fight has barely turned serious when Mercutio receives his mortal wound. His dying curse on both their houses achieves a special poignancy in this production in that his death seems almost accidental. The ensuing scrap between Tybalt and Romeo sees Tybalt dead and Romeo banished.
The rest, as they say is history.
Stetson's concept is rich in vivid – and sometimes bizarre – cultural references and they almost all work. Especially memorable are the songs that pepper Shakespeare's otherwise naked text and the musicianship shown by the young performers, in particular songstress and music director Laura Daniel, who sings like a lark. Particularly effective is the Kate Rusby song ‘I am stretched on your grave and I'll lie here forever', sung in striking harmony by the ensemble on the death of Mercutio and reprised later in the play.
A mock minuet (choreography by Katie Burton) is performed with great skill and riotous good humour and contributes to an almost piratical, ‘Beggars Opera'-like feel that permeates this work.
I have to admit there is something singularly attractive about this production that is obvious immediately but which takes longer to identify.
Shakespeare's Veronese men are Italianate, passionate and very quick to anger. Driven by testosterone, this often translates in performance to an excess of machismo and braggadocchio. Driven by estrogen the result is quite different. The passion is as acute and the humour, both subtle and bawdy, has a tart and snarly delicacy that is at once attractive and acerbic but no less wounding than it would have been if played by big bolshie blokes. The expression of sexual attraction, however, is wildly different and I found it deeply moving.
The rapport between Juliet and her Romeo is quite simply excellent. You can almost taste the trust. This is a serious, passionate Romeo and a spirited, forthright Juliet and the marriage between the actors seems made in heaven.
While the production begins in a fun fashion and happily fills the space, the performances inexorably draw me in and I become completely engaged by the intimacy of the action and forget about everything else. Impressive? Sure is.
The highlights are many and varied. We are subtly exposed to a thousand and one sexual things you can do with an iceblock, the drunken scene is splendidly realised, and in the hands of these young actors the complex language seems, in the main, to have been written yesterday. The wedding of the star-crossed lovers, celebrated as it is in fire, is effective in its brevity and the apothecary scene, with the eccentric Friar Laurence (Zara Cormack) as alchemist, is resourcefully staged.
Also serving the central action well are Saraid Cameron as Juliet's Nurse, Rebecca McFadzien as Lady Capulet and Laura Daniel as Lord Capulet. Managing the lot is Tayla Pitt as the Prince of Verona.
Let's make no bones about it Romeo and Juliet is a difficult play. The characters are uncompromising and within this inability to compromise lies the essence of the play. It is essential for actors playing these roles – in particular when they're truncated by cutting – to look for the subtleties in the text that bring the characters to life; those quirks that we can relate to and which enable us to see the characters as flesh and blood.
Stetson's young actors achieve this and make us care what happens to them in this well rehearsed and skilfully staged production. The latter scenes are especially complex and involve an emotional whirligig that would test the most experienced performer. A minor quibble would be with actors getting stuck for too long in too narrow an emotional groove and mistaking volume for emotion. We've all done it. It's just part of the learning curve.
It's a good year if you see one Shakespeare and it's a better year if that Shakespeare's half way good. History reminds us that, in times of recession, the performing arts often flourish and maybe that's why, in the last month we've had ATC's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Michael Hurst's magnificent Bard Day's Night and now UNITEC's brave brace of the Bards tragedies.
Lucky us! We should say thank you, that's for sure!
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