Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
- Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
Every artist needs a muse. John Lennon had Yoko Ono. Picasso had Marie-Therese Walter. Andy Warhol had Edie Sedgwick. And Shakespeare had Gwyneth Paltrow in drag.
But in his latest work, Perth playwright John Aitken finds a different muse for The Bard. In Romeo and Juliet, as performed by William Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton (or R & J), Aitken explores the theory that Shakespeare’s inspiration was actually Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton; an Elizabethan theatre-patron, man-about-town and the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
But Aitken extends their relationship beyond a simple poem dedication. With the theatres closed from plague, Southampton enlists himself as Shakespeare’s savour and patron, promising him £1000 in exchange for his writing. The two become close, and buoyed by their new-found intimacy, Shakespeare writes his now-famous 154 sonnets about love, immortality and a ‘Fair Youth’.
However, like their star-crossed counterparts, Shakespeare and Southampton’s relationship does not last, as they are torn between ambition, duty and the ever-lingering threat of danger; at the time of their acquaintance, homosexuality was punishable by death, and conspiracy against the crown was rife.
Whilst this has all the makings of a heart-wrenching Shakespearian tragedy, I’m afraid that R & J just didn’t work for me.
The main problem I experienced was the relationship between the two men. Southampton, played by Lauchlan Bain, was a selfish, manipulative and mannered dandy, who enjoyed toying with everyone around him; in particular, Ethan Tomas’, weak-willed, vacillating and bumbling Shakespeare. You didn’t really like, or understand, the characters, especially Southampton, so you couldn’t believe that he would be the basis for some of the greatest poetry ever written.
The only times their relationship shone for me were in the quieter moments; when the artifice of the characters seemed to drop, and you got two people, staring into each other’s eyes, and saying in their best iambic pentameter, that they loved each other. During the last-five minutes of the show, when Southampton was facing certain execution, this honesty proved particularly affecting.
Additionally, I don’t think Bain and Tomas were helped by director/designer John Senczuk’s vision for their world. Working in a black-box studio in the round, Senczuk initially established an Elizabethan mood with rapiers and fugal music. He then transitioned into a more modern mien; contemporary dress, props and expletives joined the Andy Warhol style impression of Southampton already hanging on the wall. Unfortunately, this transition made the performances themselves feel ‘modern’, which did not gel with the traditional dialogue. You couldn’t reconcile the characters with the words they spoke, which only heightened the feeling of disbelief in the performance.
Essentially, you experienced an overwhelming feeling of disconnect with R & J; a clash between the modern and the historical, that rather than making Aitken’s exploration of artistic inspiration seem eternal, seemed to make the running time never-ending instead. If only it had all been stripped back, like the quieter moments at the end, I think I would’ve enjoyed it a whole lot more.
The Prickly Pear Ensemble presents
R & J as performed by William Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton
by John Aitken
Directed by John Senczuk
Venue: The Blue Room Theatre | 53 James Street, Northbridge WA
Dates: 5 October to 23 October 2010
Tickets: Full $25 / Conc. $20