Romeo and Juliet has been radically re-set in all manner of eras and communities, but this production’s simple shift of the Capulet family being of Subcontinental heritage has a significant impact without any textual clash.
A masked group in Australian Shakespeare Company's Romeo and Juliet. Photo Nicole Cleary.
Rippon Lea mansion is a grand backdrop for Shakespeare’s tale of feuding noble families the Capulets and Montagues, setting the scene for audiences as they take their place on the lawn before its 19th century architectural flourishes. It’s not Renaissance Verona, but when the theatrical lights go up and The Australian Shakespeare Company’s players appear in Bollywood’s colourful, flowing silks more often than embroidered doublets, there’s a pleasing familiarity about this hodgepodge of glitter and grandeur.
Romeo and Juliet has been radically re-set in all manner of eras and communities, but this production’s simple shift of the Capulet family being of Subcontinental heritage has a significant impact without any textual clash. This tweak delivers sensory delight, from Karla Erenbots’ costumes to a big, Bollywood dance number choreographed by Sue-Ellen Shook, while also adding a racial element to the star-crossed lovers’ forbidden relationship. Furthermore, casting actors of Subcontinental heritage as the Capulets injects some welcome diversity into local theatre.
The other key to the enjoyment of this production are the leads. Both 2018 graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts, Samuel Rowe and Ayesha Madon are young enough to convince as teenagers who will do anything for love, but also mature and talented enough to give depth to their characters. Rowe’s performance was particularly engaging, conveying Romeo’s youthful sincerity and energy (including some amusing sprints toward his true love), but with confidence in the text and himself. Madon interpreted Juliet as a girl who is equal parts dreamy and emotionally strong. While she’s not much into iambic pentameter, her delivery had an appealing natural expressiveness.
Other notable performances were Paul Morris’ agile showman Mercutio, and Rebecca Bastiaensz’s babbling but loving and practical nurse. Notwithstanding Alex Pinder tripping over his lines several times as Friar Lawrence, the rest of the cast were solid. Bravo to Rowe, Morris and Khisraw Jones-Shukoor as Tybalt, whose swordfighting, choreographed by Charlie Mycroft (also playing Benvolio), was energetic and convincing.
Dushan Philips and Khisraw Shukoor in Australian Shakespeare Company's Romeo and Juliet. Photo Nicole Cleary.
Directed by The Australian Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director and founder Glenn Elston, this production mostly overcomes the challenges of outdoor theatre. The wind rattling through the actors’ microphones was occasionally distracting, but the greatest challenge of all, the dissipation of energy and the loss of intimacy into a vast, open space, is largely overcome. The action is focused across a long, low rudimentary stage, including with a couple of effective intercut dialogue scenes that places pairs of actors to left and right. The mansion is mostly there for looks, but offers a genuine balcony scene on high that makes Juliet a little remote – though not so much as from the cheap seats of large theatres.
There are a few misfires, including the cast singing a mournful contemporary song around Juliet’s lifeless body, presumably in an attempt to play the audience’s heart strings even though we know she’s very much alive. Overall, however, this Romeo and Juliet is a capable, energetic, colourful, sometimes clever interpretation that makes for an enjoyable night of theatre under the stars.
Rating: 3 ½ stars ★★★☆
Romeo and Juliet
The Australian Shakespeare Company
Juliet: Ayesha Madon
Romeo: Samuel Rowe
Mercutio: Paul Morris
Nurse: Rebecca Bastiaensz
Friar Lawrence: Alex Pinder
Director: Glenn Elston
Musical director: Paul Norton
Choreographer: Sue-Ellen Shook
Costume designer: Karla Erenbots
4-21 March 2019
Rippon Lea House and Gardens, Melbourne
9 March 2019
Hamilton Botanic Gardens
16 March 2019
Kilmany Park, Sale
23 March 2019
Cruden Farm, Langwarrin
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