Romeo and Juliet photo (c) The Bacchanals

romeo and juliet
by william shakespeare

Blame the drugs. Blame the friar who gives them to Juliet so she can pretend to be dead, to avoid an arranged marriage and elope with Romeo.
            Blame the parents on both sides for their feud which forces the young lovers apart. Blame their friends whose fatal brawl sees Romeo banished from the state. Blame the hormones; cupid; the letter that never gets through. Blame all the above since in this production of Shakespeare's "most excellent and lamentable tragedie", you see only too clearly how the elements pile up on the road to catastrophe.
            We know these kids are doomed; they've been committing suicide, under a gross misapprehension, for centuries. So, to tell their story with a new urgency and pathos, as the Bacchanals do here, is no mean feat.
            This young company takes a radical, purist approach to presentation. Eschewing elaborate sets, costumes and special effects, they opt for a bare stage with the minimum of props. More significantly, they forgo a coy editing of the text and gleefully present an uncut original version, complete with all its elaborations, divergent humor and musical interludes. When so much comedy - sex jokes, puns and innuendo - is restored to the tragedy, and played with such buoyancy, the cruel ironies of the story are amplified. The result is the most engaging Shakespeare I've seen. For one thing, the verbiage is delivered at a cracking pace. Some might say too fast, and such speed could have been disastrous in the wrong hands - or mouths.
            But while the bard's clever, campy metaphors are flying thick and fast, such quickness makes them work like symbols, instantly absorbed, not requiring us to think, just feel.
            Which we find ourselves doing at the famously unlucky climax, staged freshly and powerfully on a fold out sofa bed under red light. The effect of the Bacchanals' approach is to re-create a theatrical feel that is excitingly close to what one imagines the robust, emotionally and linguistically promiscuous Elizabethan dramatic spirit to have felt like. More good news is that what really works in theatre also makes this show portable. Those large and small towns through which this show is set to sizzle - Upper Hutt, Gisborne, Raetihi et al - are lucky indeed.
- Mary Anne Bourke, Sunday Star Times

"Wellington's most fearless theatre company take on Shakespeare's most clichéd play. A classic tale of boy meets girl, boy stalks girl and turns up under her balcony in the middle of the night, boy kills girl's cousin, girl drinks sleeping potion, messenger gets waylaid, boy drinks poison, girl disembowels herself, friar and nurse escape unpunished and feuding families erect statues of their dead kids. There's also two hours of traffic and a famous speech about a fairy." -
            post-Baz Luhrman, it seems that everyone is falling over them self to re-invent and re-image Shakespeare. Directors toy with period settings, gender, sexuality and accent, among other things, in an effort to be the Most Original Production, and it pisses me off. Not because I'm a purist, mind you, but because it's beginning to seem really tired. The Bacchanals' February run of Romeo and Juliet did all those things, and I couldn't have loved it more. Why did it work in this instance? Well, inasmuch as anyone should be a purist about Shakespeare, his text is, of course, the key. The Bacchanals' manifesto states a commitment to great, text-based plays, and, true to their word, the entire script of the "two hours' traffic" (said with knowing, iffy hand gestures in the opening chorus) was performed.
            A company of just nine actors, playing several roles each, with nary a weak link to be found also helped. The performances were superb: the dialogue delivered often at breakneck speed: no grandstanding or Balcony Scene, photo (c) The Bacchanals showponying allowed among these young thesps, obviously. Standout were Hadleigh Walker as Mercutio (boy, could he die) and Erin Banks' Benvolio - a laddish, expressive performance.
            Casting was clearly without agenda, and it was refreshing to see women taking on male parts with no politicisation. And modernisation of setting worked here again, because the text was the key. Where Luhrman used "Longsword" branded rifles in a fairly contrived way to make his setting work, the Bacchanals instead work with the script: "the mask of night" becomes a face mask, for example. Romeo pops Smints™ before the wedding. The lovers emerge with sex hair the morning after.
            I got the feeling, watching this production, that I'd wandered into a really, really good rehearsal. All the fun with none of the performance anxiety, the actors in their street clothes, sitting on beer crates onstage, relaxing with beer off.
- Sarah Barnett, Salient

Star-Cross'd In A Post-Baz World

The set for the Bacchanals' new production of Romeo & Juliet is simple, the sort of thing you'd expect from a play about to tour the provinces on the smell of an oily rag. A few beer crates, an old couch and the increasingly prominent Bacchanals backdrop displaying their faux-Greek logo and Latin motto: 'Hic et Ubique': 'Here and Everywhere'.
            In the director's notes, David Lawrence states "so much of the public perception of the play has been set in stone by Baz Luhrmann's film of 1996 - every year without fail at the annual Sheila Winn Shakespeare festival there's a Romeo & Juliet piece with guns and Hawaiin shirts". The challenge for the Bacchanals here is making something familiar fresh. The film is so deeply ingrained in the general consciousness that seeing the thing with new eyes is difficult. Luhrmann cut huge segments of the script in order to present a snappy, erotic, colourful and loud production which wasn't too hard on the grey matter: love in the time of Colt .45s. The Bacchanals' set, and production, is like a two-finger salute fired squarely at Baz and Leo. The film had huge, custom-made sets and special effects; this company barely makes use of their stage-lights.
            The Bacchanals are a smart and resourceful company made up of actors doing the work for love over money; and they aren't afflicted with the curse of vanity so evident in many similar co-ops. Their productions are thorough and selfless - it's hard to wallow in thespian narcissism when you have a truckload of text to get through.
            At the start of the show, the cast's energy is almost over-whelming. The early conflict between the fueding Montagues and Capulets is played with frantic control (to coin a phrase Romeo might have), and only slows when Prince, played in detective drag by Tina Helm, breaks it up.
            It's nice to see the lovers in the play presented not as noble revolutionaries of the heart, but as vapid young people who just don't think things through. Alex Greig's Romeo is impestuous, horny and a big wuss, while you can imagine Juliet, played by Julia Harrion, reading Cleo and Smash Hits while deciding who she's going to have a crush on next. After all, she is only thirteen.
            The couple are doomed from the start.Romeo seems more at home rapping with Benvolio (a very impressive performance from new-comer Erin Banks) or exchanging wits with Mercutio (equally impressive new-comer Hadleigh Walker) than he ever does with Juliet. The young Capulet seems only mildly interested in the prospect of a love with Romeo, and is only won over by his persistence. Romeo does not so much woo as stalk and coerce his Juliet. After the surprisingly successful new take on the balcony scene, Juliet has a kip and wakes up deciding she's madly in love with this guy. You get the feeling that she's just glad to have received some attention from (giggle) a boy, not that she's been struck by Cupid's arrow.
            But we know there are obstacles in their way. Juliet is supposed to marry Paris, the Capulets and Montagues have this ancient grudge thing, and to make matters worse, Romeo tearfully and regretfully Romeo and Benvolio photo (c) The Bacchanals runs his sword through Tybalt, after the Prince of Cats has dispatched Mercutio, perhaps the only really likeable character in the play. Both deaths are really cool.
            James Stewart (It's A Wonderful Life, Vertigo, sorry) doubles as Tybalt and Friar Laurence. The friar is a strange role; at once he must be the voice of reason and a willing accomplice to Romeo and Juliet's affair. Stewart plays him as a good-humoured soul who does not appear to suffer fools gladly - he still marries the pair and provides the sleeping potion for Juliet - but not before giving Romeo a right bollocking for being such a big pansy over his light sentence of exile for the slaying of Tybalt.
            Elsewhere, the Nurse is played not by an older, matronly woman, but by dancer Irene Flanagan, who relishes in her meddling and foolishly encourages Juliet's hormonal hankerings. Bacchanal regulars Eve Middleton and Walter Plinge are Lord and Lady Capulet. Both do a fine job as upper-middle class parents, out of touch with their daughter and servants, role-playing the part of respectable citizens. Some of the most affecting scenes in the play are those portraying the domesticity of the Capulet household, where Plinge is by turns explosive, incompetent and tender.
            We all know how the thing ends, of course, the star-cross'd lovers take their life, and then the warring families cease the feud and start battling with each other to see who's going to build the biggest statue of the other's departed brat. Friar Laurence spills his guts and seems to be tacitly forgiven, Nursie stays mum and the apothecary, presumably, enjoys steak and whores off-stage.
            The Bacchanals have produced another enjoyable reading of a classic play, giving new life to tired, some might say cliche scenes, and will hopefully have a successful tour over the next month, building on the reputation they made for themselves with last year's laff riot, Twelfth Night. Be aware, the first part goes on for a while, but the play works all the better for it.
            The Bacchanals are touring the North Island in February. Go to their site to check when they'll be in your town. If you're in Wellington, the show runs till this Saturday at Bats Theatre daily at 7 o'clock.
- Jonathan Potts,

Nothing wooden about these actors

Despite the sauna-like conditions at Bats on Tuesday night, which made it feel as though we were watching Romeo and Juliet during a long, hot Veronese summer, The Bacchanals' version was definitely a cool Penny Plain version. Eight beer crates, a sofa, minimal lighting effects, and a mish-mash of modern casual clothing (beanies, baseball caps, and for Capulet shortie pyjamas and a Dominion Post to read with his breakfast) were all the setting and décor provided.
            This simplicity, while great for touring, throws a spotlight on the actors' abilities to keep us engrossed in the familiar story and on the director's ability to keep Shakespeare's words and storyline flowing freely. As with past Bacchanal productions, scenes followed one another with admirable speed and though the actors tended to rush some of their long speeches, the production still took longer than Shakespeare's two-hour traffic on our stage. However, it was good to see one or two scenes usually cut from most productions, such as the musicians' comic scene after Juliet has been found, supposedly dead.
            With nine actors to play about 24 roles, David Lawrence has to use a lot of doubling and some actors have to make lightening costume changes. At times, it was hard to follow who was a Capulet and who was a Montague, but the production swept one along, and the sword fights were strongly choreographed. While safety is vital, it was still a pity that wooden swords had to be used and no amount of groaning and grunting could disguise the fact that the swords weren't metal, though the swirling movements of the spectators added greatly to the sense of danger.
            At least the acting wasn't wooden. Alex Greig makes Romeo a gangly, awkward, restless teenager, much more immature than Julia Harrison's almost sophisticated Juliet, who appears in the balcony scene (one has to imagine the balcony) with her head wrapped in a towel and face covered in skin cream - so much for romance. Eve Middleton scores as Lady Capulet and Hadleigh Walker's Mercutio, though he speeds through the Queen Mab speech, dies a touching death.
            James Stewart plays four roles: a servant, a comic Cousin Capulet looking as if he had escaped from a silent movie, Tybalt and Friar Laurence. As Tybalt, he conveys the hatred of the Capulets for the Montagues with an unnerving controlled intensity and he contrasts this with his portrayal of the well-meaning friar.
            When the production settles and confidence grows, this Romeo and Juliet should find enthusiastic youthful audiences as it tours as far afield as Gisborne and other lower north island destinations during February.
- Laurie Atkinson, The Dominion Post

Theatrical Tragedy strikes the Waimarino after the Storm

The Raetihi Theatre season opened on Monday night as the traveling Wellington company The Bacchanals managed to take one of Shakespeare's most produced, misunderstood and hackneyed tragedies and take it back to its roots by putting a whole new humorous and contemporary spin on the play. About 70 braved the storm for the performance. The partially renovated theatre has no heating and left the audience cold. Fortunately, the show did not.
            Definitely road theatre, ten young people, seven empty beer crates, a backdrop and a sofa make up the sparse set. Unencumbered by production cost and big business expectations these kids can do Shakespeare the way Tybalt photo (c) The Bacchanals they feel it ought to be performed and it shows. There is a raw energy, a passion that you rarely get in theatre.
            Using the full original text, director David Lawrence has chosen to punch up the first three acts, stressing the comedic aspects and ribald humour initially written in by the bard. The first act is so amusing you have to keep reminding yourself you are watching a tragedy. He has chosen to focus on character, thus the physical direction, while smattered with some exceptional moments, is limited by the realities of touring theatre.
            In true Shakespearian style, major characters stand in for lesser roles. This is a little confusing at first as the company has little or no costuming to differentiate by, but the viewer is soon placated by the skill with which each of the actors grabs on to their major parts. "We always try to focus on character rather then costumes to set up the differentiation," said Eve Middleton aka Lady Capulet.
            Of Particular mention are Erin Banks and Hadleigh Walker, both of whom show true stage presence. Walker who seems to morph in an out of the roles of Mercutio, Montague, Friar John, a bard, a servant and a thug, has all eyes riveted on him when he is on stage. He is an exceptional actor.
            Banks, playing Benvolio and a number of lesser roles is likewise that truly rare animal, an actress that draws the eyes and captures the stage moment. Singing during the performance, Banks has a clear, warm soprano voice.
            Julia Harrison shows Juliet not as a love-struck adolescent, but rather as a strong, rebellious teen whose major motive is not love, rather parental irritation.
            Alex Greig's Romeo is conversely not the usual "thug turned lover" but a little bit of a milksop and putty in Juliet's hands.
            Irene Flanagan reaches far from the tradional role of the nurse by portraying her as an intrigue-playing post-adolescent that is challenged by the idea of Juliet's romantic interludes. Thus answering finally the age old question, 'Why is this woman helping Juliet in these outrageous escapades?'
            Likewise, the other confederate, Friar Laurence, played by James Stewart, (no relation to either the Scottish king or the matinee idol) is portrayed as a desperate solution seeker who doesn't quite think things through completely. Stewart also does an erudite and irritating version of Tybalt that makes you understand why he is killed off early.
            David Lawrence's Capulet is smooth, strong, finished and brutal. A father selling his only daughter to the highest bidder.
            Lady Capulet, played by Eve Middleton, has dimension and candour not usually seen in the role. She had Juliet at 13 and is now only 26, and is a woman stuck with an unenviable societal role with an impossible husband and a rebellious daughter.
            The initial discomfort of Tina Helm playing Paris soon gives way to refreshing, effeminate and slightly creepy aspects of the otherwise blandly written nobleman. It becomes clear, that this guy who wants to marry a 13 year old girl is not just a jilted lover, but a pedophile.
            Additional nods: Harrison (Juliet) gets particular kudos from this reviewer for spending most of the evening in summer dresses and negligees in a building that was about 6 degrees inside.
            Lawrence's unexpected and amazing musical adaptation of the Shakespearian sonnet," My Mistresses eyes are nothing like the Sun," should really be released as a single on CD. He, Banks and Walker's harmonized version of the sonnet was beautiful.
            A young 16 year old Ruapehu College girl who had never seen live Theatre before was suitably impressed, "It wasn't what I expected at all," she said, "They were like real people, I understood it, I thought it would be, I don't know, all stiff!"
            The collective gasp and whispered, "Oh my God, he actually drank it!" that came from the college students during the death scene further served to emphasize the impact this production had on the youth of the Waimarino. "That's exactly why we do this," said Lawrence, "To bring theatre to New Zealanders who wouldn't otherwise see it."
            The company is Lawrence's brain child, it works on a shoe string budget. The cast often camps out in tents at night. "We just wanted to get a group that could, work and travel together and do some REAL theatre work," he said.
            The Bacchanals will be in Wanganui at the Repertory Theatre on the nights of February 20 and 21. They decided to cancel the Hawera performance on the twentieth and spend an extra night in Wanganui because requests for bookings are exceptionally high in the river city.
- Marlene Ring, The Wanganui Chronicle

A whole lot of love

An Icelandic theatre group performing Romeo and Juliet as a circus troupe complete with trapeze, hoops, high tumbling and muscledefying athleticism, was the last production I saw of Shakespeare's great romance.
            That was in the west end a few months ago and came just after the royal NZ ballet's stunning interpretation of R&J. and just minutes before settling down at Bats to see the Bacchanals' production, I learned that Downstage is retelling the star-crossed lovers' sorry tale later this year.
            Romeo and Juliet's popularity, now and down the ages, isn't hard to fathom. Doomed young love, duels, intrigue, death, child-parent conflict, and the saddest of all possible Nurse photo (c) The Bacchanals endings tempered only by a flicker of hope that it was not all for nought.
            So, what new did the Bacchanals bring to the story, other than their close study of the script and determination not to hack it about?
            It was contemporary dress, a poor theatre set of a few crates, a cloth backdrop and a sofa, music that was created live on stage, rather than off a CD, minimal lighting and a cast playing a multitude of roles involving some very fast costume changes.
            A hopeful Romeo downed a couple of mints before a hoped for kiss from his beloved, Juliet's famous balcony speech was delivered in a face mask as she spoke of their meeting in the "mask of night".
            The energy and commitment were terrific but because the script is sacred, the play ran for two and a half hours, and while it was quite interesting to hear bits almost always hacked out by directors, the actors dashed through their lines at such a hectic pace that many words, nay, whole passages, were incomprehensible.
            David Lawrence's direction and passion for Shakespeare were as sure as ever but even more impressive was his performance in a variety of roles. Also meriting special mention are Julia Harrison who made a convincingly young and erratic Juliet, and Erin Banks as Benvolio, who showed real flair for finding the poetry in Shakespeare's script.
            As Romeo, Alex Greig was somewhat uneven in his performance while Irene Flanagan showed a neat comic touch as Juliet's nurse.
- Lynn Freeman, The Capital Times

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