The recent Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) production of Rolleo and Juliet is an acerbic and witty romp through romance, identity, and fate. Written by Mary Franklin and Gemma Hudson and directed by Hudson, the play is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In credit to the writers’ originality, it could, however, easily stand alone.
It is the story of Romy and Juliet, two members of opposing roller derby teams whose star-cross’d romance blossoms across the room at the Verona Roller-Rink’s masquerade mixer. This plot is told in tandem with one of Juliet’s possible poaching to a French Roller Derby team, which adds the essential element of intervening fate to the relationship. The plot is a comedic affirmation of the “joys of an adolescent squabble,” as Taylor Barrett Fair’s Duchess puts it.
The standout performances were Cathy Gilbert as Romy and Anastasia Dougenis as Juliet. In these two thespians, we were presented with a relationship between two characters that was at once brimming with joy and yet marked by moments of profound emotion where one realised the play’s central theme. Romy and Juliet’s relationship seemed to be hindered by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, yet it endured. Such was the message of the production: love conquers all. Dougenis’ first soliloquy, in particular, was a notably well-acted moment of pathos, where she sat alone on the stage and agonised over the challenge Juliet was presented in leaving or staying with her love. Similarly, Gilbert’s Romy was a character endowed with a degree of self-confidence that acted as a foil to Juliet’s more introspective anxieties. Credit also has to go to Emma Kha’s Tilly, an antagonist whose machinations, though well-meaning, were ultimately ill-advised. Kha’s performance as the friend who means well yet causes chaos was deft, and her character was laced with a current of Machiavellian scheming that complemented the inherent goodness of the protagonists.
Franklin and Hudson’s script was witty, comedic, and timed with just the right amount of disarming lines to avoid leaning into farce or stereotype. In particular, the prologue that took and rewrote parts of Shakespeare’s prologue both grounded the play in context and foreshadowed to the audience that this was not Shakespeare but something else entirely: a love story that may have been inspired by Shakespeare yet was not wedded to convention. By immediately disposing of Shakespeare’s writing after the prologue, the writers acknowledged their literary debts but were never beholden to them. The script’s stylistic choices, especially the characters’ conversational register and the use of blank verse, allowed the play to feel naturalistic and be concerned at its heart with the tender and warm image of young people falling in love in the inner west. Its testament to the writers is that they gave focus to the subplots of the romance and Juliet’s impending departure and yet expressed an overarching theme of two people whose lives are threatened by the intervention of circumstances. Franklin and Hudson lay these serious themes under a bed of sharp, laugh-out-loud comedy, and that’s proof of their talent with the pen.
Rolleo and Juliet’s sound, costumes, and sets contextualised the production. Harry Steele and Henri Collyer’s sound design, a mixture of contemporary pop and 1980s rock, joined costuming and set design to lay the production both in the present and in the kind of imagined past where roller-derby and bright colours (notably in Wellstead and Walker’s set design) seemed to have never left. This colourful panoply made the juxtaposition between moments of romantic joy and existential introspection, often hazed in blues or near-darkness, far more apparent.
Romy and Jules found a happy ending. As the footlights dimmed and the music ended, we left with them in a loving embrace. The originality of this ending was an outstanding moment from the writers. This was an excellent departure from the usual parade of woes and dirges that end Shakespeare’s play. Instead, I left pleased in the knowledge that their embrace triumphed over the interventions of fate, and that Romy and Juliet went on in love. As saccharine as the image of “endless love” might seem in reality, here the sentiment suited well: for Romeo and Juliet are the archetype of “star cross’d lovers” in any context. They are always more an ideal than a reality, and the image of the leads locked in a joyous embrace was the perfect capstone to an evening of idealised love.
Someone once said love “looks on tempests and is not shaken.” In the ending of Rolleo and Juliet, we’re given an image both of an enduring love, and of a quality production.