Romeo and Juliet (Impulse Theatre) runs at the King St Theatre from July 29 – August 24. By William Shakespeare, directed by Stephen Wallace.
There’s a certain cadence that actors take with Shakespeare when they don’t quite understand what they’re saying. It goes like this: fast-fast-super-fast-slow-BUT-LOUD-BECAUSE-THIS-BIT-IS-IMPORTANT-speedy-speedy-laugh-fast-slow-loud-pause-LOUD. Often it is accompanied by a pelvic thrust or some other crude joke, because the memo has been got that Shakespeare has dirty bits.
I would like to be clear that a) this doesn’t happen all the time in Impulse Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet, although it certainly does occur a lot of the time, and b) it’s not necessarily the actors’ fault when it does happen. Iambic pentameter has a rhythm that will catch you, and that cadence I outlined above is the way it seems to trap modern readers. Where the problem lies in this production is in the direction. There are a lot of issues in this show, and I think this is where most of them stem from.
This production is set during the 2005 Cronulla riots. (It should be noted that this is not the first production of Romeo and Juliet to use this setting – Bell Shakespeare did it in 2006. Similarly, it was not that good.) The Capulets are Muslim Lebanese, while the Montagues are white Australian, several wearing racist shirts (“no Lebs”) and/or Australian flags. Against this racially and religiously charged backdrop, Romeo and Juliet fall in love.
There are the ingredients for a good show in this production. The context gives a very clear motivation for the animosity between the Montagues and the Capulets, although the production doesn’t really do more than pay it lip service. It is certainly difficult to explicate a show’s setting without actually changing the text, but here? It very much felt like there were costumes and not much else. It didn’t feel like the implications of the setting were adequately thought through. This extended from some overarching problems, to more basic logical ones – for example, given that her identity was clearly telegraphed by her costume, how did Romeo not realise Juliet was a Capulet until she told him? why did Juliet’s parents send her to the friar to be shrived, considering that is a deeply Christian ritual? The way the script was interpreted might have made sense on the surface, but as soon as you began to penetrate a little deeper, problems appear. It needed a much stronger dramaturgical hand.
Similarly, the show needed a much tighter cut. There were long scenes where I found myself completely bored. Shakespeare’s script includes scenes specifically written for an audience with a limited view of the stage, who needed to be told what was going on because they could not see it. These should be the first scenes to be cut in a modern interpretation, and probably not the last. At more than two and a half hours long, this production drags. It needs to be at least half an hour shorter if it is to really pack a punch and engage audiences. Again, this is a problem with direction: a clearer vision would have made for a better cut, as well as more effective interpretation.
There are clearly some talented actors in Romeo and Juliet, even if this production does not show their talents to their fullest effect. As Romeo and Juliet, Dan Webber and Rainee Lyleson did not have especially good chemistry, but worked well individually. I especially enjoyed Lyleson’s interpretation of Juliet, which highlighted her youth and impetuosity. It was a good performance, and with tighter direction, it could have been a great one: a problem which extends to the entire show.
The other issue I want to mention is the lighting. I don’t normally really notice the technical aspects of shows unless they are either a) spectacular, or b) distractingly bad. Sadly, this show fell into the latter category. The lights changing every three lines, as well as the constant reversion to blackout between scenes, was distracting and unnecessary. A little restraint would have gone a long way here.
This is a principle that could have applied to the whole show. Romeo and Juliet felt like the lights: constantly shifting, unfocused, and changing for no apparent reason at all. I felt like it was a show that did not have a grasp on itself. It didn’t understand what it was saying. The elements for a good show were there, but it needed a much clearer vision, and a much firmer hand. It’s not the worst production of Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen this year (that honour belongs to this show), but this is not really a compliment. Shakespeare should not drag like this, nor should it seem this ill-thought out. With some stronger dramaturgy and direction, this might have been excellent, but sadly, it falls far short of this mark.