Like, I suspect, so many of my generation, highschool Shakespeare was a dreadful, dry (to the point of parched), lamentable experience. My teachers, armed with rubber-stamped interpretations, sucked all of the very considerable vitality clean out of his magniloquent texts. So, it’s with quite some envy that I think of the spoilt youth of today, who get to palpably experience The Bard’s wit, power and poetry, via the gentle genius of Wayne Blair.
I refer, of course, to STC’s Romeo & Juliet, directed by Blair, in honour of the company’s education programme, which opened, to rapturous response (three curtain-calls), last evening, at The Wharf 2; another early feather in the caps of co-Artistic Directors, Blanchett & Upton.
Given the desiccation described above, it seemed strangely appropriate WB’s R & J should open in the red dust of the desert; Verona, perhaps, but more your Verona, outback Queensland. Blair seems to have dispensed with any deliberations over whether to identify as director, or indigenous director, in interpolating aspects of his culture; candidly, affectionately and humorously; accordingly, dance, music, masks, words, phrases and other idiomatic icons have found their way into Million Dollar Bill’s early, epic tragedy.
Quite apart from the director’s own scroll of credits in theatre, dance, film & television (as writer and actor, too), he’s assembled a cast with very impressive credentials. A case in point, as Tybalt & (the) Friar, in his auspicious STC debut, WAAPA standout, Jimi Bani, who brings authentic Torres Strait cred and kulcha. As our hero, also an STC virgin, youthful veteran of stage and screen, Isaac Drandich, who delights with a nuanced, measured physical and verbal performance.
Indeed, ‘twas an evening of comings out, as it were: Michael Habib, previously having shone in Othello, for Bell, makes his STC entrance, as Capulet, bringing his powerhouse projection, in all its voluble glory and clarity, along for the ride. Similarly, Richie Hallal, charming as Benvolio and Damion Hunter, as the upright Paris, enter the fray with distinction and promise.
Aside from Romeo, though, if I were pressed to play favourites, it would be hard to move past Sophie Ross’ Aussified reading of Juliet, while both Lucia Mastrantone, also debuting for STC, is irrepressibly brilliant and commanding, as Mercutio. And then, there’s the almost impossibly gifted Ursula Yovich, as Nurse, who, in has succeeded thoroughly in becoming her character, while putting her own, unmistakable stamp on it. I can only but enthuse, too, over Jacob Nash’s design, Steve Francis' cohesive and complementary compositions and sound, as well as Luiz Pampolha’s spot-on lighting. Nigel Poulton’s fight scenes are worthy of special mention, as they are elegant, yet visceral, choreographic masterstrokes.
Notwithstanding some unevenness, Blair has put it all together with warmth, sensitivity, insight, understanding, maturity and originality, while holding onto a sweetly childlike playfulness which can only but succeed in thrilling audiences; especially those compelled and condemned to ignominiously lifeless highschool studies. In one fell swoop, he restores Shakespeare to its rightfully pre-eminent place, while pulling it off its forbidding pedestal once-and-for-all.
Move over, Baz: Blair’s bounty is as deep as the sea! Love’s labour hasn’t been far from lost: he has ensured my ancient grudge breaks to new mutiny. I hope this is the shape of Shakespeare to come.
Sydney Theatre Company Education presents
Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare
Venue: Wharf 2
Dates: 9 May - 6 June 2008
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777