Ask a non-theatregoer to name a Shakespeare play – or even just a play – and there’s a good chance they’ll say Romeo and Juliet. As one of the most famous offerings in the history of western drama, it’s difficult to find a new spin on this old tale of doomed lovers. But La Boite and QUT’s collaborative production, which opened to a packed house last night at Brisbane’s Roundhouse Theatre, does succeed in injecting this familiar material with energy, humour and innovation.
Six of the ten-person cast are third-year students in QUT’s undergraduate Acting program, and the other four are mainstage regulars who offer expert support to these promising up-and-comers. What this casting does is make Romeo, Juliet and their peers exactly what they’re supposed to be: adolescents. When we call this play the greatest love story ever told, we often forget that this is a story of teen love – and the dynamics of that are unique and intense. The titular lovers – played by Jack Bannister and Darcy Gooda in this production – capture this characteristic energy in their portrayal. The instant infatuation, the giddy flirtation, the defiance toward parents who don’t understand or support them: these are all present in Bannister and Gooda’s credible depiction.
Director Todd MacDonald offers a refreshing revision to the gender imbalance endemic in Shakespeare’s plays. Nicole Hoskins as Benvolio and Wei Lan Zhong as Tybalt provide a unique and striking interpretation of these traditionally male roles, each holding their own as “one of the boys”, while maintaining a uniquely feminine power. Kerith Atkinson is similarly effective as head of the Capulet house; the ultimatum she issues Juliet about her marriage to Paris deftly merges parental concern with a chilling brutality. And, while not a re-gendered role, Bridget Boyle’s Nurse is outstanding, delivered with such expert comic timing that the audience chuckles at almost every line and gesture.
Grady Ferricks-Rosevear offers an impressively energetic and physical performance as Mercutio, while Nikhil Singh invests the often-overlooked Paris with a genuine and moving tenderness for Juliet, one which makes his loss in the climax of the play more than just a dramatic footnote. Veteran performer Eugene Gilfedder is pitch perfect as Friar Laurence, embodying this pivotal character with total conviction and an affection for Romeo and Juliet that is utterly moving. While under-utilised in this production, Colin Smith gives his all to Montague and the Apothecary, finding great depth of character even in small and non-verbal moments. All members of the ensemble work seamlessly together, and their support for one another is evident throughout the 105 minutes of the production.
Aside from its strong performances, Romeo and Juliet is also a pleasure to experience for its design aspects. The clever set by Anthony Spinaze allows a seemingly blank wooden stage to be endlessly converted into new spaces, whether the red-bannered party halls of the Capulet house, or the meditative green space of Friar Laurence’s garden. Spinaze’s costume design is equally striking, weaving subtle colour-coding into the contemporary attire of his characters. Anna Whitaker’s sound design is noteworthy, expertly mixing ambient noise with modern pop songs and even a recurring live vocal performance by Nicole Hoskins to evoke the immersive world of emotion that Romeo and Juliet occupy.
While there may be few surprises in the plot, La Boite and QUT’s Romeo and Juliet offers an animated and deeply felt experience of this classic tragedy. The cast and crew all contribute to a cohesive and involving theatrical experience, and fans of the archetypal teen love story will not be disappointed by the passion of its two leads. The production runs until 15 June 2019, with tickets available now at the La Boite website.