Romeo and Juliet – Stephen Wallace brings something old to brilliant life. (theatre review)

It’s difficult to see a Shakespearean play these days, if by some miracle the play hasn’t previously been seen, parts of it have been used in modern vernacular, advertising, pop-quoting and/or been read, misread and hated through studies at school. Of all the plays that fall under this banner, surely one of the most often quoted is the popular Romeo and Juliet, a play so famous that the names of the two principles and their most famous lines might be known before the source. One of the primary reasons to perform Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet might be to do these lines justice, place them in context and bring “Shakespeare alive” for an audience intrigued as to get a bit of a grip on the original.

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It is also worth noting, that a Shakespearean Tragedy is a special kind of animal.  The tragedies are not about the small disasters of life wearing a protagonist down so that they can’t face another day. Although this may be tragic, Shakespeare preferred to posit his tragedies against something great and then have them befall the protagonist as an act separate from the day-to-day grind. A Shakespearean tragedy speaks to the importance of the act; it is one specific thing that can take a life, and never is this point more relevantly made than in the distressing case of teen suicide.  Teen suicide is a startlingly contemporary issue, and yet here we have a classic Shakespearean tragedy that reveals this disaster at its core.

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In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy occurs because two warring families cannot bring themselves to reconcile and see each others perspective. Romeo meets Juliet at a family gathering he has infiltrated and the very young teens fall instantly in love. Because of their families problems, they decide to marry in secret, however Romeo is still dragged into the family problems, and it is his attempts to escape that lead to the tragedy of his mistaking Juliet’s fake death for a real one, taking his life at this discovery, and Juliet’s subsequent suicide at waking to find her lover dead at her feet. It’s a very tragic take on the sleeping beauty fairy story, while at the same time being an exhortation on the incalculable costs of feuding between warring tribes.

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Stephen Wallace, heart and soul of Impulse Theatre production company, has successfully brought all these very contemporary elements into a modern-day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that remains true to Shakespeare’s very beautiful words. The setting is Sydney’s Cronulla beach at the time of the 2005 riots.  Romeo is a blond Cronulla boy, and Juliet is a young Muslim girl complete with headscarf and clothes that cover. The rival gangs action scenes are interspersed with scenes of the Cronulla Riots, cleverly used to bring the seriousness of the families differences to the fore. Never before have I see the danger that Romeo and Juliet are in so clearly portrayed, and never before have I seen the accidental tragic elements of their death brought so true to life.

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Dan Webber is an engaging Romeo, enigmatic, handsome, and yet startlingly gentle and fragile. His performance is compelling, despite his long and often intense monologues. He dances cleverly around the complicated language, his enormous emotions being held in and frothing over, constantly reminding me of a volcano ready to explode.  It is easy to understand how the passionate Romeo can kill the cousin of the woman he loves and condemn himself to a kind of purgatory at such a young age. Webber portrays Romeo as an enormous young man, two small physically for everything that writhes inside of him. His vibrancy is enviable, and in many ways, as inevitable as his doomed end.

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Rainee Lyleson is a potent Juliet, sweet and pure, and yet firm and filed with declarative resolve. Her Juliet is a girl who hasn’t learned that the world can oppose her ideals no matter how just and good her motivations are. She acts on what she knows is right with the full naive power of one who will not be led astray from their true path. Lyleson’s youth and wit are not advanced for her tender age, but rather born of vision and hope, rather than strength. The death of her Juliet is the death of all of that promise and hope within each of us. She dies because she cannot live and remain who she was and cling to all that she understood. Lyleson brings out a Juliet I had never seen before; singularity of purpose, faith in honesty and truth and commitment with no fear of testing. Her tragedy is not Paris is who lost to her anyway, but rather the death of who she was and the birth of who she is to become.

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Impulse Theater use, among other techniques, the Grotowski methods in their preparation for performances, immersing the actors in their roles in a way that reduces the impact of the distance between audience and performance. You can read more about their methods here.  These methods bring a play like Romeo and Juliet to life in new, refreshing ways, highlighting aspects of the play previously unrecognized by myself and make fora gripping experience of a play in which the plot (not to mention the lines) are so well known.

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The rest of the cast is excellent.  No one is out of place, everyone full immersed in their role, each line and nuance made more real by the Cronulla Beach setting and the Muslim referenced costuming. In an amazing act of language gymnastics, Alex Bryant Smith manages to give Tybalt’s lines what we would call in Sydney a “Leb” accent. There are many small moments like this throughout the cast, including a clever lighter dance choreography by Shondelle Pratt. It’s a wonderful production, well worth the nights entertainment it promises.

My review has come right at the end of the season of Impulse Theatres excellent Romeo and Juliet, so if you want to see it, there are only a couple of performances left, so hurry. You can grab your tickets here.

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