Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture
Rarely has there been a theatre production which so crystallizes the dilemmas facing a theatre reviewer as does Bell Shakespeare's current production of Romeo And Juliet. It has a strong conceptual design that permeates all aspect of the production. But much of it subverts theatricality and traditional understanding of the characters and action. This results in a huge diversity within audience experience. While it could be argued that all theatre should have such a diversity, it is less common with works that are so entrenched within the theatrical Western canon. While productions of Romeo and Juliet have experimented with theatrics (eg. motor bikes on stage etc.) they have rarely sought to examine the context of the two lovers and their society at a more fundamental level. In doing so, Bell's work risks the same criticisms as do iconoclastic comedians using ironic humour to satirize culture and society. When people are so entrenched within a framework of culturally and socially conditioned understanding and seeing, it is only possible for them to see the irony as actual; and thus, because it is within a lampooning setting, it is experienced as grossly offensive and WRONG! The person who already shares the same viewpoint as the satirist is alternatively affirmed in the belief or viewpoint.
The visual arts have tended to adopt more of a post-modern critique for most contemporary offering. Context has a huge bearing on what is seen. This is done less in theatre criticism. The Critic like most practitioners tends to measure the success of acting performances against some apriori understanding of the characters. If performances in a particular production don't measure up to this apriori understanding then the production is deemed less worthy. The more the performances and production values measure up to the pre-conceived model then the greater the worth.
In Bell's production, the context is derived less from Shakespeare's external setting of Verona and more from a contemporary reading of the play's meaning. The walls are not just city walls but the walls of a tomb or mausoleum. The characters play out a dance of death; not born of extravagance or honour but rather from pettiness and a bloated narcissism. Idealism and the fire of life's imagination attempt to escape; only to be overwhelmed by death. The result is a de-emphasis on the exuberance of youth with its flashy desire to push life to its limits.
The exchanges between Tybalt and Mercutio and with Romeo suffer as a result. Tybalt is almost a non-entity in this production. His causing death to Mercutio and his own death are momentous in their effect on others. However his total lacking in any charisma suggests his ilk are more like bacteria in a rotting carcass than lions in a vibrant jungle. Assuming this is a deliberate conception and not simply a weakness in the actor playing the role, we are left with an unsettling sense of inevitability.
The two characters who shine most with life are both left dead. Mercutio is seen literally raging against the wall while accepting the absurdity of all their situations. His loathing of Tybalt and the posturing of his society manifests in his "plague" curse on everyone. The minds of all in hearing distance are too small to comprehend the visions of Mercutio. Juliet's drive for life is drawn magnetically to Romeo and as a result to death. Romeo is Death. To her "death is quite romantic" (Bob Dylan, Desolation Row). Romance is not an unusual weakness in young girls of her age. In an ideal world it can be harnessed. But in the desolate psyche that is the soul of her culture and society, dangerous Romance becomes the irresistible beat of her dance to premature death.
Hearing comments from students who saw the production are interesting. One said she "hated" Juliet because she was constantly moving. Another said how "bad" Romeo was because he was so unattractive. Most were excited by Mercutio. But when he died, there was no one to lift the play. Someone said how she hated the set and lighting because it was so plain. She said more could have been done "to liven it up". I heard other complaints about how the actors just didn't work hard enough. While Juliet was passionate and committed, without Mercutio the actors were just uninspiring. A number were irritated by Juliet though admitted she really was "thirteen" and thirteen year-olds are annoying. But Juliet can't win. I also saw a comment in the press about her being "too old".
There were also positive comments like: "It was awesome." I heard positive comments about Romeo as being so "true" to his character. A number of people commented on the use of the projection on the wall. There were positives about the costuming and even about references to the Cronulla Beach riots.
However all these comments seemed to miss the point about theatre as an art form; about the conception of the play and what it means in 2006. I haven't heard or read one comment or argument about Bell's conception of the play or view of the world as expressed through the production. The relationship between the stage design and performance styles was a major aspect of the work. There were very deliberate directional choices that reflected a deeply considered conceiving of the play. I mean, let's face it. If you set a play within the walls of a tomb you must have a pretty pessimistic view of the characters and actions that take place within it.
If the stage is a universe unto itself, then what takes place within it grows and assumes its own life. But as that is itself derived from and through the mind of artists creating it, then it must reflect something of the views and feelings of those artists. Surely this is the subject that Reviewers must address (ie. how the performances and production values express a particular conception and how clear is that conception itself!). It means accepting one's apriori knowledge of the text and other productions but giving due respect and consideration for the uniqueness of each new theatrical work. This doesn't mean that faults aren't exposed. What it does mean is that two things are discussed: the directional concept and how performances and production aspects give life to that concept. Each may be flawed. But some analysis should be given before jumping to conclusions that such-n-such actor was piss poor because she/he didn't do such-n-such in a such-n-such manner.
I'm not sure I achieved this in my review of the Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo and Juliet. The difficulty of the task of reviewing is a reason why I do so little of it. However, as a person being on the butt end of some haphazard reviewing of my own work over the years, I see the need for lifting the game of reviewing. I have also attended performances of works which engaged and enthralled audiences only to have some side-show review that did no justice to the production attempt (even if not fully successful). Worse, I have seen productions which had the potential to grow into significance being cut off at the knees by Reviewers who weren't rigorous in deciphering the production context and precepts.
I will be following with interest the reviews of Romeo and Juliet as it tours across Australia to see what criteria are given weight by the Reviewers in different cities. It will also be interesting to see how the company itself develops, modifies and even challenges its own conception and application over the coming weeks. What will the production be like when it performs to Queensland audiences towards the end of July? I believe the work challenges some traditional views about the play. It is to be hoped that the company grows in confidence with its presentation and that the critical eyes are open to the wider possibilities being offered.
For my review of the play click here: The Canberra Review