Eryn Jean Norvill and Anna Lise Phillips in Romeo and Juliet (Pic: Lisa Tomasetti)

Did William Shakespeare invent teenagehood and, by inference, all that goes with it? The jury, methinks, is still out. But it’s unquestionably one of the aspects Kip Williams, the director of Sydney Theatre Company’s current production of Romeo And Juliet, has sought to bring to the fore, in this most excellent and lamentable tragedy.

Following a lengthy, but impressive cinematic sequences in which the entire set revolves to dramatic music (lending a propulsive quality that reflects the momentum of the work as written), revealing overindulged youths engaged in drinking (Italian beer, of course) and carousing, the play proper opens with the visceral spectacle of a Montague and Capulet squaring off. Nigel Poulton’s fight direction is especially invigorated. Thank fuck the brouhaha breaks up and cool heads and heels prevail, or there’d be talk of restricting opening hours.

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You may recall, textually, it’s Escalus, the reigning Prince of Verona, who intervenes (at least princes were good for something in those days), but he’s missing in action, along with around nine other characters, culled as method in Williams’ madness. That “madness” is to change emphasis, focussing much less on the Murdoch-Packer rivalry and much more on the tempestuousness of teenagers in love. Given Jules’ maturity, endowed by the author, it’s easy to forget she’s just 14. Just like our Holy Lady of Altona, Julia (may she rest in peace), Giulietta rails against misogyny; not least its violent manifestation in her own father. Romeo (possibly the original Renaissance man), unlike our Holey Father, the Abbott of Canberra, seems to embrace and delight in her parries and ripostes of wit.

The Capulet mansion, in which much of the action is set (including a squash game, in which Capulet promises Juliet to Paris), looks like the kind of dilapidated chic one might’ve expected to find in old Verona. Grand, but in need of a lick of paint. With a spareness that suggests something more than restrained taste: it may be Nick Scali has repossessed some of the decorative furniture. There’s a pervasive coldness and emptiness, as a result; a creeping sense of impermanence and impending crisis. David Flesicher can be very proud of his creation, which affords ideal sight lines from practically every angle, thanks also to meticulously considered placement and movement of actors. Notwithstanding 11th-hour technical problems that postponed the opening, it now all runs like a Swatch.

Williams, by dint of his angular approach as much as anything, ensures R & J is revitalised once more: refreshed by the palpable idealism of these two young lovers; star-crossed, but starry-eyed. I say starry-eyed, which probably describes Romeo’s poetical perspective to a tee (Dylan Young suffuses his character with that undimmable twinkle that only young love can engender) but Juliet (Eryn Jean Norvill) manages to hold onto her head, even while her heart is all a-flutter. Williams shines a spotlight on Juliet’s incongruous temperance and it’s one of the most compelling aspects of the production. Williams seems keen to pick up the ball Shakespeare’s thrown and run with it, insofar as Juliet’s independent mind, spirit and drive for self-determination. One might even call it feministic. It’s what really drives this take on the play.

After interval, the stage is stripped bare, lending an exposed, raw edge to the mounting drama. To say it’s a stark contrast to the sweeping filmic indulgence of the opening is an understatement. In the moment, it comes as something of a shock. It’s questionable. Not necessarily wrong. But questionable. Nonetheless, I applaud the boldness and it certainly puts the right kind of pressure on the actors.

There’s barely a Montague to be seen: again, Williams has foregone the vaunted, intransigent rivalry between the two old money families, to discover, explore and exploit the tension between father and daughter, especially. All in all, it’s quite a radical departure: while, for example, Luhrmann’s film may’ve seemed daring at the time, it really only took (when it comes down to it) rather superficial, if attractive, aesthetic licence, while Williams ventures a severe cull of the dramatis personae.

Speaking of which, while all performances are quite strong (with the possible exception of a rather limp Paris, from Alexander England), some surpass. Among the most promising is Norvill’s, her STC debut. The role of Juliet is finely calibrated, making her much more complex and intelligent than Romeo, who comes off as something of a (well-intentioned) doofus by comparison. Akos Armont is strong, as Benvolio, Romeo’s loyal cousin and bestie. Mitchell Butel present Friar Laurence in a similar way to that in which I’ve always been affected by Romeo’s chief confidante and counsellor: his is advice that sound, or is he just another holey man? Josh McConville gives good Tybalt and Colin Moody is right in the pocket, as Capulet. Anna Lise Phillips is delightful, as a kind of comical, martini-and-Mogadon Martha (as in Edward Albee), nonchalant and ever ready to party, in her hot pink evening dress; what else is a trampled trophy wife to do, after all? Julie Forsyth is an absolute treat as the wet nurse from, for all we know, Rooty Hill, or Sylvania. But if we were to put Moody and Norvill to one side, it’s probably be Eamon Farren, as the reckless, rock stellar Mercutio, who could call this production his own. Farren plays him as doomed from day one, given his penchant for living in the moment, insatiably courting danger and disaster.

This probably isn’t the definitive R & J, for there probably is no, nor can there be any, definitive R & J. But Williams has certainly whet our appetite for Shakespeare’ fruity classic once more, with a very fresh slice that really tingles, here and there.

The details: Romeo And Juliet plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 2. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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