In a shared courtyard in the side streets of Verona, an unending rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues rages. Their long histories and short skirmishes have blinded them to their ineffectual attitudes and it takes the tragic deaths of their beloved Romeo and Juliet to stir the tides of change in Shakespeare’s well-loved tale of star-crossed lovers.
As director Damien Ryan notes, Arthur Brooke’s original poem Romeus & Juliet was a moralising story about the consequences of children disobeying their parents but Shakespeare’s rendition uses the children’s deaths to chastise their hot-headed parents. Thus Ryan’s production centres the lovers as the children they are, literally in terms of the actors’ ages, but also in their boundless energy and striking innocence. Oliver Ryan as Romeo is both moody and excitable, struggling to navigate the parameters of his duty to his family and friends while also discovering himself as an individual. Claudia Elbourne’s Juliet is strong-willed but naive as demonstrated in her frequent arguments with herself, juggling what feels right against what her family wants. Ryan and Elbourne have a sweet and tender dynamic; recognisable as young love for its exuberance and exaggeration and portrayed with a keen conviction. The two capture a certain quality of youthful effervescence often lost in productions that capitalise on the wisdom of Shakespeare’s words.
Set around the 18th century homestead of Bella Vista Farm, the lines of drying laundry and farm equipment are markers of country life and cast the bitter arguments between the Capulets and the Montagues, which often end in bloodshed, in a petty and ordinary light. Whereas the dramatic and romantic lighting design by Sophie Parker with deep blues and purples for the lovers’ secretive meeting and warm pink for the daylight of their parting, builds the love story as far more substantial and worthy of a truce. Even in the crypt, the site of their deaths, Romeo and Juliet’s families stand cloaked in black cloth like immovable pillars, representative of their stubbornness.
Populating the courtyard are a slew of nonnas, washerwomen, cousins, monks, and Romeo’s crew, who cause havoc out of boredom while the older boys are off in the war. Mercutio (Max Ryan) is the boldest of the bunch, harassing friend and foe in equal measure in sharp reveal of his own insecurity. Benvolio (Jeremi Campese) does his best to maintain the peace, obeying the Prince’s (James Haxby) orders and avoiding fights with Tybalt (David Soncin), but his youth and lack of power prevents him from stemming the flow of blood in Verona. The meddling Friar Lawrence (Mandela Mathia) has his hands in everyone’s business and comes across as more fumbling than calculating in this rendition, perhaps as a man grown too comfortable with his salutations to others’ problems.
In Ryan’s Romeo & Juliet, the battle is an intergenerational one between the passionate youth and their stubborn parents. It also serves as a warning of sorts about the power afforded to young people and their capacity to wield it however they can. The dark days of Verona pass in the hope of change.
Romeo & Juliet is running at Bella Vista Farm from December 21st – 30th as part of Sport for Jove’s Summer Season XI. The production will then tour to the Leura Everglades and Parramatta Park. For more information, please visit Sport for Jove’s website.