Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Emma Sproule. Dionysus Theatre (Vic). McClelland College Performing Arts Centre. Oct 2nd to 10th, 2015

Emma Sproule is one of the most innovative directors in the world of community theatre, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Dionysus’ new production of arguably the Bard’s greatest tragedy.

The staging is quite brilliant, bringing the characters down amongst the audience so that we actually feel part of the play, rather than just observers. She weaves two storytellers, Sam (Madeline Rintoul) and Greg (Mitchell Sholer), through the play, almost a Greek chorus, and allows them to be our conduit to story and action. It’s a brave move. We meet them, bored and flipping coins, and – through their decision to create a story to ease the boredom (they can’t decide initially whether it should be a comedy or tragedy, so they flip a coin), we are led into the play. To see them lying on their stomachs in the aisle between the seats, watching their creation unfold, is exciting theatre. No spoiler alerts…we know the ending, it’s HOW the story is told that keeps us watching. She even allows them to interact with the characters they have created, not just observe. A bold and successful concept.

She also has chosen very young actors to play the youths in the play. That works both for and against the production.

On the positive side, there is real credibility in the teenagers, and their rebellious attitude towards parents, and a general feel of “playful puppy” in their immaturity. You can almost see them posting on social media. It makes the entire play accessible to anyone who has teenagers, in a way it has never been before.

On the negative side, this very fact means that few of the actors (the majority untrained and some making their first ever appearance) understand the rhythms, or even the meaning, of Shakespeare’s line, or know how to project…and Ms Sproule certainly hasn’t had time during the rehearsal period to give them a crash course in all that’s needed.

That aside, there are still some breakout performances in this production, most notably Jarrad Kenny as Mercutio. He is mercurial, charismatic, and has an edge about him that suggests he is actively looking for trouble. His Mercutio is the best friend that every boy wants and every mother dreads. He’s the quintessential teenager looking for something to rebel against, and Jarrad has perfect diction with projection and without affectation. A rare combination indeed. That diction is shared by Madeline Rintoul as Sam, not surprising since she has extensive experience playing Shakespeare. Jonathan Simpson is appealing and shows great promise as Benvolio.

Jett Thomas adds gravitas to Tybalt, bringing his imposing stature and that wonderfully rich bass voice to bear with much needed authority. Anthony Staunton, a community theatre stalwart, is so credible as Capulet that it’s difficult to believe this is his first Shakespearian outing. Brigid Auld is perhaps a little too manic as the nurse and thus misses many of the laughs inherent in Shakespeare’s “comic relief” characters. The performance just needs tweaking a little to allow the lines to breathe.

And then there’s Romeo (Zachary Thomas) and Juliet (Gretel Sharp) ….Thomas makes a brave job of the star-crossed teenage boy, but there are times when it’s obvious that he doesn’t know what the lines he is saying actually mean. He lacks passion in his acting, an emotional central core, and I wasn’t surprised to read of his success in musical theatre, where talent is more important than depth. Romeo is a teenager, but he should never be flippant about his love for Juliet. More teenage angst is needed.  Gretel Sharp (Juliet), on the other hand, has a terrific understanding of teenage Juliet….everything in life is WOW and about her. You could almost see her tweeting “I met this boy”. But she also imbues Juliet with real intelligence, and that’s a nice change. Strangely, she adopts Thomas’s lack of passion in the al- important and incredibly romantic balcony scene, so that it becomes a flat and meaningless exchange. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” means….” Why the F$^& do you have to be one of THEM??!!” and requires frustration and disappointment to set the following exchanges rolling.

The other roles are filled with varying degrees of success, and there’s an interesting score and even some Elizabethan dancing. It may be that some respectful editing would have helped reduce the play to a more manageable length. But full marks to Sproule and her creative team for a brave production. The South-Eastern suburbs needs a community theatre to preserve the classic works of theatre.

Coral Drouyn

Photographer: Beck Benson of The Fiesta Group.

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