It is becoming increasingly difficult to expect originality from a production of Romeo and Juliet. It’s become a story so entrenched in culture that we all know the basic formula: boy and girl meet, their families hate each other, a few things happen and it doesn’t end well. Thus, the challenge arises when the piece is again brought to the stage: to present it in a way that doesn’t seem dusty, boring and reminiscent of a Year 10 English class. With their latest production, the Monash Shakespeare Company unequivocally achieves this goal.
As vague as this may sound, the show does have a certain… feel. Before the show began, the audience waited in a line outside doors that had dance music blaring through them. It felt more like we were waiting outside a club than a Shakespearean show, but it perfectly set the tone of the performance: edgy, highly contemporary and in tune with the adolescent lifestyle.
There are a few aspects of this show that make it really good. The first is the context into which it is placed. Placing Romeo and Juliet in the modern day is by no means a revolutionary idea (yes, we’re all thinking about Luhrmann), but director Mark Wilson, executes it effectively to ensure it isn’t just a four hundred year old characters wearing oh so modern skinny jeans. The show doesn’t shy away from the lewdness, abrasiveness, sadness, ugliness and overall beauty that pervades real teenagers lives and that are ever-present present in Shakespeare’s text. Along with the characters, the narrative is also repackaged to make actual sense in its modern surroundings. The brawl that begins the show takes place in a night club and looks like something we’re much more likely to come upon today that a man biting his thumb at another. To a modern audience this modernizing of every aspect of the show creates an ability to relate to the characters that can’t simply be achieved through putting Juliet in denim shorts.
But, of course, an issue that can crop up whenever one hears that a theatre group, a student theatre group no less, is doing Shakespeare is just that – it’s Shakespeare. Delivering a Shakespearean script effectively is a difficult task for anyone. No matter how good the concept of a show is, if the actors can’t deliver the material the show simply won’t be able to stand. Let your fears be assuaged now: The cast gets it right. Each member delivers their lines not only with total assurance and confidence, but a sense of it being natural dialogue, not just related sonnets. Most importantly, they are also able to connect with what they are saying and convey the emotions at the heart of the work; the fight scenes are angry, the love scenes are emotional and the final moments of the play are genuinely sad. This cast, and their fantastic director, has a wonderful ability to connect with the script as it is, removed from the plethora of pop culture and past renditions that surround it.
In this regard, particular applause needs to go to Romeo, the leading man played spectacularly well by James Cerche. Cerche’s portrayal of Romeo has the splendid quality of making the character extremely likeable for the play’s entirety. Where other adaptations have created a seemingly self important and annoying teenage boy, this Romeo is honest, passionate and most importantly deeply authentic. Of course, the show is in it’s best light when Romeo is paired together with his Juliet, beautifully played by Meaghan Lawrie. Lawrie’s Juliet is sweet and endearing and also avoids the trap of becoming just another teenage girl. Paired together, the two look genuinely in love and convey all the passion and urgency that comes with love and is needed to make sense of the huge decisions the characters make. Outside of the title pair, there are also a number of fantastic moments that highlights the wider talents of the cast. Particular props need to be given to Haydyn Jones and Aislinn Murray who are able to inject genuinely funny and original interludes into the show as the Nurse and Peter, as well as to Tom Middleditch who gives a nuanced, evocative and engrossing portrayal of Lord Capulet. Final applause must be given to Jonny Dutaillis for his dynamic and quite incredible portrayal of Mercutio.
This production of Romeo and Juliet isn’t revolutionary. It is however well constructed, well polished and well acted Shakespeare. This shows steers clear of all the clichés that can make such a famous work tiring and present to us a fast past eclectic and engrossing show.