Although far from the best version of the play I’ve seen, this Romeo and Juliet is a confident, robust production with plenty of charm and some appealing talent behind it. With a production concept that takes a generically 1960s setting and casts the Montagues and Capulets as youthful gangs of Rockers and Mods (or Sharps) respectively, the play opens by setting the tone in an invented, dialogue-free scene in which the two gangs fight over a radio and which style of music to dance to, before degenerating into a stylised brawl. This leads into the traditional opening scene including a rather clever pun on the line, “My naked weapon is out”. We are treated throughout the show to some classic tunes and many vintage costumes which, although ultimately a fairly pedestrian gimmick (as all modern R&Js inevitably search for some recognizable tribalism to demarcate the opposing clans), it is admittedly the done thing with Shakespeare these days and is carried off here quite effectively. One cannot help but notice similarities to the 50’s milieu of R&J’s adaptation West Side Story, especially in the use of switchblades, but this is perhaps coincidence as much as a direct case of an influence returning to its point of origin.
Although using quite a sizable cast with no real doubling of the major characters, the production uses an interesting approach I’ve not seen before of conflating the four parental characters into two clan matriarchs, so that Old (or Lord) Montague becomes Lady Montague (Kate Buttery) and, more importantly, Lady Capulet (Christina Costigan) retains her own significant role while also absorbing all her husband’s lines and actions as well. Although this is apparently supposed to have significance to some kind of comment about matriarchy (which is somewhat obscured), the surprising thing is that on a formal level it works remarkably well. Especially in the case of Capulet, the amalgamation of these two significant secondary characters into one is a disarmingly effective bit of editing, even if it doesn’t particularly add much to the drama other than putting a new twist on Capulet’s berating of Tybalt (Angus Brown), given the commonly-perceived subtext of some kind of deeper relationship between him and his master’s wife, now a single character.
Compared to the uniformly young and often underwhelming cast of The Crucible, Romeo and Juliet has a variety of talent, from the sprightly young groovers playing the incidental roles to the more seasoned performers taking on the appropriately older characters. Phil Zachariah is rather good in the comical, hippie interpretation of Friar Lawrence, as is the fearsome Costigan as Capulet, able to switch on the charm and yet turn on her daughter with frightening malice moments later. Shane Lee is sympathetic as the doughty Benvolio, and Justin Hosking is nicely nuanced as the clueless and overdressed County Paris. Nick Barker-Pendree uses plenty of volume as the ebulliently camp Mercutio, coming across as either uproarious or cringeworthy depending on your taste, and is never dull at any rate.
As to the stars themselves, Camille Meghaizel makes a credible Romeo, perhaps a little short on charisma but certainly unafraid to board the character’s rollercoaster of emotion, from the wincing peaks of besotted devotion to the troughs of indulgent tantrums. Indeed, even if Meghaizel is perhaps a bit older than the character, he is convincing as a petulant, intemperate youth.
Understated by comparison, Syrie Payne plays Juliet very effectively, with a gentle warmth punctuated by moments of swelling frustration or excitement, and, of course, ultimately suicidal despair. It is hard to fault Payne for it specifically, but this is a prime example of a tendency that often nags at me when watching performers tackle this famous role - a niggling aura of bland niceness. It would be pleasing, for once, to see a Juliet that brings something edgy to the character, to display an attitude that complements the radical action of her character who is, ultimately, just as headstrong as her beau.
The fun, retro style of the production is, on the whole, well-directed by Peita Collard who has brought together some entertaining performances and, apart from very clunky blackout/scene-changes, has staged some nicely conceived action on a simple and versatile set.
Eagle’s Nest Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet is recommended to anyone who loves the play, or simply wants a fun, colourful and moving night out.
EAGLE'S NEST THEATRE - SEASON ONE
Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet
Venue: Auspicious Arts Incubator | 166 Sturt Street, Southbank; opposite VCA and Malthouse Theatre
Dates: May 1st - 11th | For specific times www.eaglesnesttheatre.com
Tickets: $26 / $16; groups 10 + and early-bird (pre 14 April): $24 / $14; preview & tight-arse tues & wed: $20 / $10