Romeo and Juliet. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Peter Evans. Designed by Anna Cordingley. Bell Shakespeare. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Until April 9. canberratheatrecentre.com.au.
At a time when it is so tempting to experiment with contemporary stagings of Shakespeare's work, Bell Shakespeare's current production of Romeo and Juliet offers a refreshing return to a traditional telling of the Bard's tragic tale of two young star-crossed lovers.
Director Peter Evans with designer Anna Cordingley has placed the production within the familiar setting of a 19th-century theatre, complete with proscenium arch and balconies.
Cordingley's costume designs evoke the Elizabethan period, and the entire production wears its concept with freshly imagined observance of the play's origin.
It is virile, eloquent and absorbing. Fight director Nigel Poulton's superbly choreographed sword fights explode with perilous execution. Passion hangs on every line as a talented ensemble of nine actors keep the audience enthralled.
Above all, Bell Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, fitting like a glove in the Canberra Theatre's Playhouse, possesses a clarity that salutes Shakespeare's art of story-telling.
From the very start, the Prologue, delivered directly and simply to the audience, makes it clear that we are witnessing actors, presenting the ill-fated tale of the fickle fortune of two lovers from rival families. The dire consequences of such transgression pronounce their tragic judgement upon the violent culture of social rivalry, blind parental will and love's overwhelming potency.
Evans's inspiration has come from Hamlet's famous advice to the Players, a thinly veiled instruction by Shakespeare to his company to search for truth.
It is this truth that is embraced by Evans's cast as they speak the speech "trippingly upon the tongue" under voice coach Jess Chambers' tutelage, while holding "the mirror up to nature", in this accessible and enticing tale of Juliet and her Romeo.
Every aspect of the production has been meticulously staged to breathe life into Shakespeare's text and the physical action of the drama.
Evans's and Cordingley's faithful vision is atmospherically lit by Benjamin Cisterne's design and unobtrusively underscored by Kelly Ryall's musical composition and sound design. Evans's cast, bursting with vitality, drive the story forward with zest and intelligence.
Kelly Paterniti's Juliet is utterly enchanting, convincingly charting the journey from a naïve 13-year-old, possessed with the ardour of teenage love to the tragic victim of Fortune's cruelty. Here is a Juliet to light up the firmament.
Alex Williams, as Romeo, has yet to find the full measure of his role. He is appealing to watch and agile in his part, but his verse still stems more from the head than from the heart.
There are excellent performances from other players. Michelle Doake makes the most of the comical blustering of the Nurse. Damien Strouthos plays to perfection the swaggering machismo of Mercutio and Hazem Shammas as the confidante Friar Laurence and Justin Stewart Cotta as a domineering Lord Capulet provide excellent support.
Tell the story well, fire it with imagination and bring it to life upon the stage, and Romeo and Juliet's universal themes will resonate as clearly today as they did over 400 years ago. That is what Bell Shakespeare has done with this production. However familiar or unfamiliar the play may be, this is certainly a performance to see.
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