“Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.” ― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Love is never what you expect it to be. At times, it’s complicated and nuanced and a good love story is nothing without a decent bit of drama where everything is pulled out from under a pair of lovers like a rug made of banana skins.
In today’s context, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a story that makes me think the Montague’s and Capulet’s need to take a chill pill and let their kids just shack up together, despite their difference in social status. But hey, who am I to talk? It’s a story that has stood the test of time and the audience on Thursday’s opening night at The St James Theatre came away entertained by the familiarity of one of Shakespeare’s most loved works.
Heard down the aisles, “I’m thinking back to Claire Danes from the film,” says a punter as Juliet downs her sleeping potion.
The production is set during the early renaissance in Verona with lavish costumes designed by James Acheson of The Last Emperor fame. They are spectacular, there’s no two ways about it. And so too, a cleverly designed moveable set adds depth and perspective to scene transitions, enhanced by beautiful lighting. The production values in this season of Romeo and Juliet are impressive. The question is, was that enough?
For me, there’s nothing better than seeing a traditional work like Shakespeare staged in a contemporary setting. I like to be engaged intellectually and emotionally and brought into the here and now, confronted more closely with issues that are relevant to this time and place. For me, placing the story in Verona just felt a little cliche and created some distance in connecting to the story as a whole. I wanted to work harder as an audience member and to be challenged by what I was seeing, rather than sit and think, ‘that was a nice show with lots of pretty costumes.’
So as I sat through the three acts, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching Shakespeare performed in ‘mime.’ It was like watching a melodrama play out with scenes of heightened emotion choreographed with outstretched arms and pained looks on the dancers faces. It was slightly odd, a little too OTT for me, and I struggled to fully connect.
What can be said of Romeo and Juliet is that the show is perfectly paced and beautifully cast. Melbourne-born Madeleine Graham fully embraces the verisimilitude of Juliet’s gut-wrenching pain and heartbreak in the final act, and Romeo’s two mates performed by Massimo Magaria and Filippo Valmorbida stole the show for me, as did the statuesque Abigail Boyle, who plays Juliet’s mother.
While I enjoyed the show (and it’s a great one to see if you’ve never seen the ballet before), for my money beauty alone is not quite enough. Maybe I’m just a tough nut to crack, but I want a story that has something to say with a multitude of layers and themes that add to the texture and weight of a story, even if it’s one that I already know.
RNZB’s season of Romeo and Juliet runs until 24 September with the show touring across the country. Click for details.