Review by Nathan Joe

[Shakespearean Speed Run]

I don’t really have much time for new productions of Shakespeare these days, especially when it comes to productions that are done in a so-called traditional manner. We live in an age where pretty high quality interpretations of these classics exist, yet are still performed ad nauseam in our cultural landscape. Romeo & Juliet is a particularly overcooked case, where Zeffirelli’s rather faithful rendition and Luhrmann’s modern twist are both readily available.

But I’m always open to the Bard being shaken up and being pleasantly surprised in the process. In Juliet & Romeo, performed by Isla Frame and Georgina Sivier with support from Anna Heffernan, we are served the romantic tragedy in an easily digestible 45-minutes. That’s less than half the original running time with a much, much smaller cast. It might be concise to a fault, but the stripping back of the text (by Frame) is done with love and care, logically placing the star-crossed lovers at center stage. Conversely, the warring households of Montague vs Capulet are reduced to blurry bursts of violence played for comedic relief, with side characters signalled through minimal costume changes and bizarre accents.

This is ultimately a performer’s showcase for Frame and Sivier, who show an equal understanding of the text, the words handled with lucid insight into their meaning. If clarity of speech is occasionally sacrificed for urgency of pace, it’s usually in keeping with the production’s spirit. Most surprising, though, are moments of earnest delivery that cut through the tone of parody. Perhaps the most effective scene, capturing the tragedy of the original, is Frame as Juliet being scolded by Sivier as her father. The gravity of Juliet’s circumstances are as palpable as ever.

While the truncated format doesn’t necessarily illuminate any new insights into the text, it does create an element of play that wouldn’t otherwise exist. There’s the challenge of maintaining the breakneck speed, juggling multiple roles (some overlapping) between the two leads, and replacing scenes with mere tableaus accompanied by Taylor Swift’s Love Story.

Its greatest strength and weakness is that it feels like a improv show. That is, it has a raw, dynamic and spontaneous energy that even the most professional productions I’ve seen are sometimes sorely lacking; but, it also lacks a certain dramaturgical care at times and certain artistic decisions seem underdeveloped or have yet to be taken to their natural conclusion. Heffernan’s onstage stagehand, for example, isn’t as well integrated into the mechanics of the show as she could be. The support for the quick changes works, but more could be made of her interjections and commentary. At the moment they feel like slight distractions from the action versus a considered theatrical device.

Christchurch’s lack of performance spaces is a notable one, lacking a venue comparable to Auckland’s Basement and Wellington’s BATS. So the efforts made here with D4, predominantly a dance club, are worth considering. As you enter the space, the neon colour palette is hard to ignore, with JULIET & ROMEO in bright LED lights, but it supplies the show with a backdrop where specific setting are lacking. and the performance space holds a capacity of approximately 70 people which is accommodating. The small but functional raised stage also serves as an effective graffitied black box (designed by Aaron Purcell-Kale). The considerable effort made by the production team and the venue to make this work are commendable.

Without blaspheming too much and implying that all Shakespeare should be done this way, it’s at very least a fitting approach that reflects our increasingly fickle attention-spans. Juliet & Romeo, at its best, breathes new life into an overplayed classic. For fans of the original and dissenters alike. While I wouldn’t recommend it for a total newcomer to the play, anyone with a basic understanding of the plot will be fine. With some further development, it would make a perfect show for school tours.

Juliet & Romeo plays Christchurch’s D4 until 26 May. 

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