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"In love with night..." and twilight: Melbourne Shakespeare Company's ROMEO & JULIET

"All the world will be in love with night..."
Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Romeo & Juliet
Burke Photography
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair St Kilda, where we lay our scene… 

In amongst the rose bushes of the St Kilda Botanical Gardens, two families are at each other’s throats and two lovers are falling for each other. The audience is separated into two halves, like the congregation at a wedding – one side the Montagues, one side the Capulets.

We are welcomed by a pair of Friars, Laurence and Mary, and a small band of musical players – a trumpeter, a pianist and a third on banjo. A rotunda sits in the middle of the garden and is the main focus of the performance space for Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s Romeo & Juliet.

Outdoors in Melbourne can bring all sorts of drama, especially in the transition between seasons. Yes, it’s summer now, but the city can threaten storms even after blisteringly hot days. Sunday was mostly overcast and threatened to rain – and that was the backdrop when we sat down for this production on Sunday evening. The sun was two hours from setting, but the dramatic black clouds in the distance suggested storms on the horizon for these star-crossed lovers.

This production isn’t the original text; it’s Shakespeare by way of Baz Luhrman - though not his own Romeo + Juliet. This felt more like Moulin Rouge, modern songs used to elevate the mood, heighten the tension and amuse when deployed in an oddball context. The Montagues and the Capulets engage in Shakespeare’s classic taunts – they do bite their thumb at you, sir, but their song and dance battles reminiscent of West Side Story, also inspired by Shakespeare’s tragic lovers.

The comedy gets the audience on side early on; we’re amused by anachronistic music and local references. But we’re also treated to a female Tybalt (Emily Thompson) and a female Benvolio (Carly Ellis, who steals the show each time she’s on stage, especially post-party, when she’s recovering from a hangover). Another treat is Tref Gare’s doubling as the police Inspector and his show-stopping turn as the Nurse with a comically Scottish brogue.

This show hits all the romantic plot beats, but it chooses to slice out the political familial machinations. Montague and Capulet are tyrannical parents for their children to rebel against and that’s enough here. They are figures of fear, if not fully realised characters. But that’s fine; this production is light and accessible and full of inventiveness for most of its length.

Adapting Shakespeare, particularly cutting it down, is a tricky business. Turning much of Romeo & Juliet into a raunchy comedy, with matching slapstick, makes the dramatic turn a little harder to buy. Some of the local references took away from the dramatic moments; St Kilda feels like a suitable stand in for Verona, but as Mantua, Pakenham is too much of a distracting laugh line.

And yet, even if the cleverness of the production faded into the background, as the dramatic pieces started to fall into place, the power of the tragedy remains palpable. The audience got quieter. The ensemble pulled back from earlier antics. And Matthew Connell and Joanna Halliday, both striking in the central roles, take centre stage to fulfil the promise of the play’s opening stanza.

Melbourne Shakespeare has created a thrilling, memorable Romeo & Juliet; and the outdoor setting is an amazing backdrop. The sun set slowly last night, casting a pink light into the St Kilda sky. Nature is one hell of a lighting designer.


The cast of Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Romeo & Juliet
Burke Photography

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