Romeo and Juliet 2011

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Review by Richard Flynn Adelaide Theatre Guide

Through a deluge lasting all day, a drive to Clare Valley’s Sevenhill Cellars. There, after horror experiences with “Romeo and Juliet” in two productions last year, this reviewer’s faith is wonderfully restored, ‘wettest February day up north’ notwithstanding.

The play is presented by four young men and four young women from Geelong-based Essential Theatre; everyone of them just about as good as it gets. This is ensemble playing of the highest order and the “two hours’ traffic of [the] stage” simply hums along: well-judged comedy one minute, gut-wrenching tragedy the next.

In their “Shakespeare in the Vines” annual summer (!) tour around wineries of Australia, the key to this company’s success is truth to the text, an extremely intelligent director (Anna McCrossin-Owen) who knows how to build on it, and actors who are fresh, versatile, focussed and quite simply riveting.

Leading the team is Glenn van Oosterom. His Romeo is a delight, everything an audience – and Juliet, no doubt – would want in a youth playing this role. His love of a good, sometimes bawdy, jest or clever wordplay is nicely blended with his love-struck, passionate and violent moments, this reading more in tune with the text than seen here before.

And what a dream is Imogen Sage as Juliet! We only ever see her in a simple white lace dress and that, be assured, is sufficient. Her diction and vocal projection, are awe-inspiring, severely taxed, (as was the rest of the company’s) by the deluge pelting on the galvanised roof of the wine shed where the production had been moved. King Lear would have loved it! And nothing lost, no microphones – of the orifice or otherwise variety. This is Shakespeare, Globe Theatre style, by actors who know their craft – and keep refining it with every performance.

Grant Foulkes is marvellous as Mercutio. In many ways, not the least structurally, an unsatisfactory character, but not as played here. His “Queen Mab” speech, so often ill-fitting the scene in which it occurs, stopping it dead, explains Mercutio and his later fate with more insight than witnessed in a long parade of productions. His other role, Prince Escalus, is clever casting in which he seems to revel.
Amanda LaBonte is an excellent, fiery Capulet (Lord and Lady combined), showing that, although parents in any time or place may know best, that is of little use if the child is determined to travel down other paths. Against Capulet is Friar Laurence, torn as a confessor to whom Romeo confides and at the same time his responsibilities to the burghers of Verona. Don Bridges achieves a fine balance between priest and ukulele-playing production anchor/MC. He is also composer of the appropriate music.

Cameron Moore, as Tybalt, is all rage and indignation, his fight scenes – with little more than fists and karate-like moves - wonderfully staged by Fight Coordinator, Brad Flynn (no relation to this reviewer).

In perhaps the play’s most difficult role, Jennifer Innes’s Nurse is a considered performance of over-talkative busybody and ally on whom her young charge can depend when all else seems to have failed her.   

Tim Paige makes a good impression as County Paris – often the most thankless role in all Shakespeare. And his Benvolio has layers that make his friendship with Romeo more supportive than usually played.

We are well served this Fringe with the large number of Shakespeare plays and spin-offs. Heading the list must surely be Essential Theatre’s – but the competition is fierce. And what could be better than that?

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)