By Any Other Name runs at the Sidetrack Theatre in Marrickville from May 22 – June 1. By William Shakespeare, devised and directed by Tristan Carey and Samantha Cunningham.
I can’t say I was particularly excited by the premise for By Any Other Name. In this reworking of Romeo and Juliet, all the Capulets are women and all the Montagues men, with homosexual relationships the norm in their world. The relationship of Romeo (Jasper Garner-Gore) and Juliet (Sophia Scarpellino) is thus doubly taboo: not only are their families enemies, but their sexual attraction to each other is perverse. I'm not especially intrigued by the notion of heterosexual desire as incredibly transgressive, but I tried to go in with an open mind. I think there’s a lot of interesting work that can be done with queer readings of Shakespeare and other Renaissance plays, so while I didn’t have high hopes for this particular conceit, I was more than prepared to give it a chance.
Sadly, it does not work at all. Not even a little bit, despite the solid efforts of some clearly talented actors (especially Clementine Mills as Tybalt, who is sadly underused).
The biggest problem is its dramaturgical laziness. If you’re going to go with this all-Montagues-are-men/all-Capulets-are-women thing, you’ve got to a) commit to it, and b) really, really think through the implications. Although Shakespeare’s text has been significantly modified, with large chunks cut out or replaced with original dialogue, one thing that has not been changed is the pronouns. Considering that the play was based on the idea that the genders stick together and there’s a battle of the sexes thing going on, I found this a very curious choice. It not only de-emphasised this gender divide, but it confused it, raising questions which it never even attempted to answer. (This is not to say that changing the pronouns would have fixed the problem - far from it - but they certainly contributed to the confusion.) These questions should have been fundamental to the play, and yet I feel like they were glossed over. What did it mean to be a man in this world? What did it mean to be a woman? How is it that Paris (a woman) could ask for Juliet’s hand in marriage and have that granted by Juliet’s father (a woman), while Juliet and her mother (both women) had no say in it? How was power constructed and bestowed? This could have been a really interesting way to consider the differences between sex and gender, or to highlight questions of gender and performativity, but these opportunities were missed. The world of the play was really not sufficiently established.
The all-male-Montagues/all-female-Capulets conceit also meant that some of the actions in the play took on new, very loaded connotations, and these really were not adequately explored. For example, Romeo kills two people in the show –Tybalt and Paris. Normally, these characters are men, which makes sense when located in a culture of male violence. In this version, they were both women, and Romeo’s murder of them created a stark contrast to his loving and tender relationship with Juliet. Tybalt’s death in particular is highly stylised man-on-woman violence: Tybalt has just violently stabbed Mercutio, but Romeo, without a knife to hand, beats her to death with his bare hands. Her pleas for her life are distinctly feminine and deeply discomforting. The implications of this could be fascinating – is Romeo’s violence against women a way of lashing out, considering his own transgressive attraction to one? – but they are never explored. Not at all. It felt like no thought at all had been given to any of the implications of this new world order beyond the fact that it made Romeo and Juliet’s love all the more forbidden. And even this notion was not adequately explained – all references to Romeo’s former love, Rosaline, are kept in, complete with female pronouns. Considering that there’s a large chunk of original dialogue added in the early section of the play where Benvolio professes his queer-and-thus-socially-acceptable love to Romeo, you’d think the fact that Romeo was already in love with a girl would be something that got addressed. But nope. Likewise, in the director’s note, the directors/devisors make much mention of the current hot button issue of marriage equality. Surely, in this world where being straight is so unacceptable, it would be nearly impossible for Romeo and Juliet to get married...? But the fact that their marriage looked so unlike the other marriages of their world got no mention, despite a few homilies on marriage being delivered in the original dialogue.
I found By Any Other Name incredibly frustrating because there are such fascinating opportunities for queer readings of Shakespeare and it passed them by completely. Arguably, the Renaissance play is inherently a queer text: we must remember that when originally performed, all the roles would have been played by male actors, thus queering the already taboo love of Romeo and Juliet. We could apply the work of theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – her work on love triangles as exposing homosocial desire, for example. There could be fascinating theatrical readings of the homosocial bonds between Romeo and Paris, and, perhaps more particularly, Romeo and Mercutio. But these intriguing possibilities are all passed by. Let’s take Mercutio (Annie Schofield) as an example. In this production, she is female, but she is firmly aligned with the all-male Montagues. She’s given a large chunk of dialogue where she talks about how she basically rapes gay men and turns them straight... despite the fact her best mates are a bunch of gay boys. For what effect...? I don’t know. (This rant ends with her flashing her vagina at the terrified Montague boys. My theatre date and I both turned to each other and mouthed, “I’m Old Gregg!”) Then the violence between her and Tybalt is overtly sexualised – they kiss, and they fight. For what effect...? None that I could see. Perhaps Mercutio, existing outside the Montague/Capulet dynamic, was supposed to be pansexual? But then what effect did that have on her relationships? What implications did her gender identity have on her bond with Romeo? Not that many, as far as I could tell.
There are so many interesting directions that a queer reading of this play could go in, but none are in evidence here. It seems to be a random assortment of thoughts thrown together with no cohesion or thought. The original dialogue is intrusive and at odds with the rest of the show: it’s not only linguistically awkward, but thematically awkward. Characters launch into bizarre sermons at the drop of a hat for no apparent reason. Additionally, the cut of Shakespeare’s script is very strange – there were some very odd choices made about which bits to keep and which to cut. Several speeches from Shakespeare’s original were kept in that are really functionally unnecessary to the modern audience – speeches like the Friar’s, post Juliet’s death, which were intended to explain to the peasants in the audience what had happened, as it would have been very difficult for most of them to see the stage properly from their vantage. It made the play drag a lot – at nearly three hours, it’s way too long. About a quarter of the opening night audience left at interval, and I didn’t blame them.
There are some elements I did find interesting which could have been further developed. For example, in the balcony scene, most of Romeo and Juliet’s dialogue is replaced by the lyrics to love songs – among them, What’s Love Got To Do With It, Eternal Flame, and I Don’t Want To Miss AThing. I thought this had the potential to be a fascinating comment on the ubiquity of love – a kind of literal manifestation of the idea that “I love you” is always a quotation – but it’s never really explored again. Perhaps the reason that By Any Other Name lacked cohesion and did not seem to have any underpinning thought was because it was trying to do too much. The show really would have benefited from a far more focused approach.
One thing I can say I loved about the show was the Prince’s pants, though I’m not sure why they were quite so sparkly. I also quite liked Dino Dimitriades' set, which was stylish and functional. Unfortunately, I had reservations about pretty much every other aspect of the show. There’s so much potential in queer readings of Shakespeare, but it is not realised here: this is a mishmash of ideas about love, marriage, and sexual orientation that maybe aspires to be bricolage, but ends up simply being a mess.
(Also, why did everyone have a pet rock? I get that there was that speech about pebbles added on at the end, but... why?)