“You kiss by the book,” murmurs Juliet teasingly after Romeo’s second effort on the night of their first meeting at her father’s masquerade party. And the same goes for Jeff Zayer’s production at the Nash Theatre in New Farm, its fidelity to Shakespeare’s original piece admirable even as it becomes a little too drawn-out. However, despite the demanding three-hour length, the production manages to succeed due to its simplicity and energetic cast.
The plot of Romeo and Juliet is well known: Romeo and Juliet meet, instantly fall in love, marry in secret because their two families are implacable foes, Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin in a duel and then goes into hiding, Juliet takes a poison that makes her temporarily appear dead in order to avoid a wedding with her parents’ choice of suitor, news of this ruse fails to reach Romeo, Juliet awakes to find Romeo has killed himself next to her, she then kills herself, the discovery of this jolts the two families out of their feud. I’m sure there’s meant to be a cheerful joint picnic in there somewhere towards the end…
The diminutive stage of the Nash serves the piece best during the smaller scenes; the feel becomes more cluttered during the larger group scenes. Wisely, Harry Millner’s set keeps most of the space free, its pillars flanked by two rectangular canvasses with two human figures drawn on each. Just before the opening speech, these canvasses are lit and flicker convulsively. Here, then, is the pulse of the world of the play people alike in every way, yet gazing across at each other as Montagues and Capulets. It’s a nice touch. For much of the rest of the piece, the lighting merely serviceably illuminates the action in a broad, bright wash. One exception is during the scene just before the Capulets’ masquerade party, in which Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio are bathed in a moody turquoise, the space suddenly taking on a foreboding atmosphere.
Also lending the space a different feel is the occasional use of music, particularly the dissonant, percussive throb that accompanies the final tomb scene. As with the relative constancy of the lighting, there is minimal use of music here. Greater use of it could well lend the production more grandeur and variation.
Reinforcing the purist feel of the production is the ‘Robin Hood-ish’ garb associated with original Shakespeare; the colour-coding of each character is another simple, effective touch.
The title parts are arguably not that meaty, and can rely quite heavily on the charisma that the performers themselves bring. Although there is a lovely poetry to many of their lines, they are essentially two typical love-struck teenagers. Trent Spears’ Romeo is appropriately fickle and nervy, but not empathic enough to overcome the idealised nature of the part; Tegan Devine’s Juliet is sweet and graceful, though a little tentative in her verse-speaking. The same goes for many of her fellow cast members. Their enthusiasm is excellent, but they do at times veer between laboured delivery and naturalistic throwing away of their lines.
Generally, the production flows along quite well, although the pace would benefit from less pausing and even snappier scene transitions. Condensing the play by stripping it back to its central storyline would also help; there is too much filler here, too much reverence to minor supporting characters. Tightening it all up would also allow even more of the comedy early in the piece to come through.
Perhaps the most contemporary thing about Romeo and Juliet is the juiciness of the supporting roles in contrast with the lead romantic ones; this is still true of much modern entertainment. Chris Vaag adopts a leering, viper-like swagger befitting the villainous Tybalt; he brings real presence to the part, face flushed with barely-suppressed young man’s rage, body straining for the chance to release it. Adrian Want’s Mercutio is suitably prancing and confident as he roams across the stage. As the play continues, his enthusiastic variations in tone, volume and use of mimicry perhaps become a little too showy. Teenage protagonists aside, Paul Sherman’s fleet-footed Friar Lawrence is very good indeed; this stalwart of Brisbane theatre is an old pro and it shows. His rhythm and timing are spot on. He lets the character inhabit him rather than the other way around. In many ways, Friar Lawrence is the heart of the play, trying for a way out for the two forbidden lovers, but ultimately being thwarted by circumstance. Here he is deftly played, with a palpable relish in the role and the language.
Varying the onstage tableaux and keeping the production reasonably dynamic, Jeff Zayer lets his cast inhabit the space in its entirety. Of particular note is the swashbuckling and intense sword duel between Mercutio and Tybalt; Romeo facing out to the audience during the famous balcony scene is another simple yet effective touch.
As really only one storyline exists in Romeo and Juliet, some judicious trimming of some of the filler in this production would be to its benefit, and be in keeping with the simplicity it is aiming for. Overall, though, and given how many radical and conceited modernised versions of Shakespeare have been offered over the years, this production is refreshing in its enthusiasm and faithfulness.