I find there is something about watching Shakespeare productions that is refreshing. On one hand, there is familiarity. I know the narrative, lines that have stuck with me, parts of soliloquies that were drilled into me in some junior high school English lesson. On the other, there is the element of surprise. The anticipation to find out how the play has been shaped and made different, what themes and the cast and creative team have decided to highlight through setting, or costuming, or lighting, or by going back to basics with body language and voice modulation. I enjoy finding these differences, and coming away having learnt something new that I hadn’t noticed before. And Bell Shakespeare’s 2023 production of Romeo and Juliet definitely delivered the something new.
It is director Peter Evans’ second rodeo directing this particular play, and this time we see it stripped all the way back to its bones. The set is sparse, consisting only of two raised platforms to be traversed between (manifesting perhaps a physical reminder of the narrative’s feud), with additions of Persian carpets and wooden stools placed and taken away by the cast with purpose and ease, and an elaborate lightning display above, emulating the starry skies under which our lovers covertly meet time and time again. Costuming is similarly simultaneously understated and purposeful, with the cast dressed in functional all-black for the majority of the play, with the exception of the Capulet ball scene, where there are smatterings of colour in bright skirts, shawls, and Tudor era-esque neck pieces, adding the much-needed vibrancy for the setting.
The stripped-back nature of the production, however, does in no way detract from the quality of the cast’s performance. Jacob Warner’s Romeo is a charmer through and through, with a certain boyishness especially on display. Supported by Blazey Best and Kyle Morrison as Mercutio and Benvolio respectively, the trio brought forth smatterings of laughs, revelling in the comedic vulgarity of the first act that is often downplayed.
It has to be said though, that Rose Riley’s Juliet stole the show. Riley commands the audience’s attention with ease, showcasing the growing pains of a young girl looking to enact her own wants, and explore her own desires, within a society that sees her as a pawn to advance their own needs. Though it is often noted that Juliet is just shy of turning 14, when we get to the musing conversations over her age, Riley’s nuanced portrayal makes this fact hit harder, and more poignantly, than most.
Overall, as the first full-scale production to inaugurate the Neilson Nutshell, Romeo and Juliet is a delight to watch. The decision to have the seats wrap around the stage makes for an intimate viewing experience (and as Evans notes, how Shakespeare intended for his plays to be seen). With the cast frequently blending in with the audience in free seats, emerging from the stalls, and asking audience members for a dance during the Capulet ball (I would like to take an opportunity here to say that I was asked to dance by Juliet herself, and I too, was a little mesmerised), the production seamlessly and charmingly uses the space, and the story, to its advantage. When there’s less to be distracted by, we pay more attention to the words.
Evans and the team have us look deeper and ask us to interrogate and question what underpins the story, the society, and the characters of Romeo and Juliet. We are asked to consider the ‘what if’s and the ‘what might have been’s more distinctly. Until we are finally left with something new, learnt from something old.
Romeo and Juliet will be playing at the Neilson Nutshell, Pier 2/3 Walsh Bay, until July 8, before moving to Fairfax Studio in Melbourne from July 13-29 . It will then return to the Nutshell from August 2-27. Tickets are available here.