Sunday, July 18, 2010

Shakespeare's R&J presented by QUT Gardens Theatre Brisbane from 12 to 17 July 2010

Below is a copy of my review published at

Shakespeare’s R&J is a highly physical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, featuring a cast of four young men set in a Catholic boarding school during the 1950s. Typical of mischievous teenagers in any era, these school boys are initially drawn by the forbidden allure of Romeo and Juliet--a text banned in their school. Progressively they take turns reading and enacting the various roles from the text in hidden corners well away from teacher surveillance. The result is a culturally relevant interpretation of Shakespeare with particularly confronting commentary on gendered role-play and gay marriage. R&J originally ran for 400 performances in New York City and won the prestigious Lucille Lortel Award in 1998 for outstanding achievement in Off-Broadway theatre. Written by American playwright Joe Calarco, and directed by Craig Ilott, this adaptation shortens the original tragedy and weaves a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets into the action, thereby lending a richer texture to this enduring paean to unrestrained love.

What did you like about this performance?
Both Tom Stokes (Romeo) and Ben Gerrard (Juliet) bring authenticity and tenderness to their first exchange at the Capulet’s ball. Here they hold the corporeal nature of their attraction in perfect tension with the quasi-religious, transcendental overtones of their love. The thrill and immediacy of the meeting is brought quickly to climax with their first kiss, reaching poetic consummation with the sonnet’s concluding rhyming couplet: "saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake; then move not, while my prayer's effect I take." Moments like these deserve celebration. Everyone should experience the music of the interlocking lines of this beautifully crafted sonnet in a live environment.

What didn’t you like about this performance?
It’s easy for directors to become distracted by the challenge of setting a Shakespeare play in a new and more relevant context for today’s audience. Consequently they sometimes forget the most important goal is to provide quality acting that exhibits a sound grasp of dramatic verse. Unfortunately during the first third of R&J there were moments when lines sounded rushed and the rhythm of the verse lost. The ensemble skipped over the natural phrasing of the text, giving the effect of an urgent race to the end of each scene. When pushed along like this the meaning is glossed over while the tempo ticks along at allegretto speed leaving the audience lagging behind. The result is similar to listening to a pianist hammer through a Bach minuet while forgetting to musically breath, only to rest once they reach the double bar line. Surely just as a pianist first uses a slower tempo to work on the more difficult aspects of each line of music, then an actor should work closely on the technique of each line of dialogue before pitching up the tempo in the full flight of performance. In hindsight I think that opening night nerves may have contributed to the problem considering the players sounded more relaxed as the night progressed.

Why should we go and see this show?
It’s helpful when well-meaning friends counsel you on how best to deal with the vicissitudes of life, but as each year passes you might find their advice starts to stale and become predictable. When this happens I think literary heavyweights like Shakespeare, best interpreted by shows like R&J, can step in and give a fresh and innovative perspective on your own life. Want advice for the best way to recover from unrequited love? It’s right there in R&J when Benvolio advises Romeo to “weigh” the vision of Rosaline (Romeo’s love object) “against some other maid”. Such advice suggests clearer judgment of one’s romantic prospects can be better achieved when two women are poised evenly in the “crystal scales” of the mind. That's quite a sophisticated and powerful metaphor for the decision-making process and all the more memorable due to R&J’s ability to creatively convey what is so often thought but rarely so well expressed.

Was there anything remarkable about your experience?

Some of you may be familiar with the various approaches directors have taken when adapting Romeo and Juliet for Australian audiences. Back in 1999 Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre explored issues of racism and reconciliation by casting the Capulet family with indigenous actors and the Montague family with non-indigenous actors. The colonising impulse of Australia has been similarly explored by casting indigenous actors in the role of Caliban, whose intimate knowledge of the land is cruelly exploited by Prospero in The Tempest. Such modern interpretations do effectively shed light on the anxieties surrounding our nation’s shady history, but I personally cannot see why theatre continually feels the need to rescue Shakespeare from the category of boring capital ‘L’ Literature in its original form. To create a distinctive production today you don’t need elaborate conceits in casting and setting to give the text currency. Shakespeare even in its barest form will always be current and will continue to bring what Andrew O’Hagan calls “the news that stays news” well over four centuries after its original conception. After saying that, I must confess that I’ve never seen an interpretation of Shakespeare quite like R&J with its challenging take on an often told story that still manages to retain the spiritual essence of Shakespeare’s original.

1 comment:

  1. Your choice of words in this article flow so beautifully Alison. Once again a critically tuned review, and one which clearly demonstrates your own cultural capital, lending it an overwhelming sense of authority.