Above – Rose Riley and Lucy Bell. Cover – Rose Riley and Jacob Warner. Photos – Brett Boardman.

It’s arguably the most famous play in the world and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t at least heard of the star-crossed lovers of William’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Both beloved and pulled apart by audiences and scholars, it’s a tragic story of two teenagers who fall in love at a party, setting off a chain of events that leaves six people dead and a community in chaos. It seems far fetched even by 16th Century standards, but somehow, the iconic sonnets and soliloquies still resonate, over 400 years later.

Entering into the heightened emotion of teenagers in love, families at war and Shakespeare’s gift for writing communication errors that have deadly consequences, I was intrigued as to what Bell Shakespeare’s production would add to the story that has (pardon the pun) been done to death.

Renowned for their intriguing and ingenious staging, direction and interpretations of classic literature, Bell Shakespeare have often provided audiences with updated and accessible performances. However, in this latest production, the team have created a minimalist set design, two platforms, raised, occasionally furnished with a rug. The cast are dressed in black, adding on harlequinade style garments for the Capulet ball.

This pared back approach allowed the text to take centre stage as Shakespeare’s words rung out through the theatre with the careful precision of Bell Shakespeare’s incredible actors. While effective, it was still difficult to not be disappointed with the low-key set and costume design. The black costumes were more indicative of a student production on budget rather than Australia’s premiere Shakespearian players.

That’s not to say the performances weren’t wonderful. In particular, the leading couple, Jacob Warner as Romeo and Rose Riley as Juliet captured the lust and playful energy of the lovers beautifully.

Warner’s charismatic, cocky Romeo has just the right amount of cheek and Riley’s Juliet walked the line between naïve innocence and worldly wisdom, taking care to demonstrate the enormous decisions she was expected to make.  

Blazey Best took on the dual role of Mercutio and the Prince, a cape slung around their shoulders to indicate the change. Mercutio was a swaggering f-boy obviously overcompensating which was an interesting take on the character, while the Prince was more or less an afterthought.

James Evans kept the banter going with his goofy dad jokes as Lord Capulet and Monica Sayer’s Lady Capulet was the most traditional approach to the text. The iconic role of the Nurse was played by Lucy Bell, who brought an unusual energy to the character, losing some of her humour and warmth along the way.

Peter Evans directed the piece which is billed as “exquisitely intimate.” While there is interaction with the audience in a charming dance scene and the characters consistently break the fourth wall, there’s very little else to draw you in as an audience member. Overall, this version of Romeo and Juliet was unfortunately, underwhelming.

Event details

Bell Shakespeare presents
Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare

Director Peter Evans

Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne | Fairfax Studio
Dates: 13 – 29 July 2023
Tickets: $35 – $88
Bookings: www.bellshakespeare.com.au/romeo-and-juliet

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