“Did my heart love till now?” Romeo Montague ponders as much after first meeting his new crush Juliet Capulet – soon to be his wife and, for a brief moment, widow – after a party thrown by her overbearing parents. The frenzied love affair struck up between the teenage paramours in this, Shakespeare’s most romantic text, has an infamously unhappy ending. But “Romeo and Juliet” is also considered to be one of the playwright’s more comedic tragedies, rife with puns, verbal sparring and disguises.
The new Bell Shakespeare iteration of the play, currently running at the company’s main studio and theatre space, The Neilson Nutshell, in Sydney’s Dawes Point, dials into this playfulness. The character of Romeo, for example, eschews any “wet blanket” characteristics in the hands of the actor Jacob Warner, who turns him into someone livelier. “I know the play well, but it is my first time playing Romeo. I just didn’t want him to be a sappy wet blanket – that was my only goal,” says Warner.
“We have seen enough earnest sappy Romeos. I wanted this guy to be playful, and I think the evidence is all there to suggest he is.”
Below, the production’s stars, Warner and Rose Riley (who takes on Juliet), sit down with with T Australia to talk about the challenges of the material, working with the show’s director and the Bell Shakespeare’s artistic director, Peter Evans, and letting the play sing.
Is this your first time portraying Romeo and Juliet? How did you approach embodying the character?
I played Juliet in my first professional production when I was seventeen. I’m thirty now and it’s been amazing to have the chance to play this role again. In approaching the role this time, I wanted to honour Juliet’s complexity and emotional volatility. She feels things deeply and takes what little agency she has to try to live her life for herself. Her relationship with Romeo is also very playful and full of longing and lust, and I was keen to lean into those dynamics.
I don’t think you can ignore that Shakespeare was writing for a specific building, under specific parameters and for a specific audience. The play gives you clues as to how it should be done and I think if you try to impose to much of top of the play, the play will constantly fight to be seen and the audience will sense that dissonance. I like that we have tried to get out of the plays way and let it sing.
In terms of being accessible, I don’t think that is really a problem. We work really hard to work out what we are saying so that hopefully you don’t have to. But in saying that, I like that Shakespeare is pushing the limits of language, he seems in his plays to constantly be telling us that words are not enough to describe the big feelings that humans have, and so he literally invents more words. He asks his audience to take a linguistic leap of faith and I think that’s fun.
The characters of Romeo and Juliet are historically 16 and 13 respectively. How did you manage to immerse yourself in the mindset of teenagers experiencing their first encounter with love?
The age of Juliet has been relatively unimportant in my approach to the role. Shakespeare has written a wonderfully complex character, I found that within it I could explore the bounds of my own maturity and immaturity. The important aspects of her youth I think are tied in with her vulnerability, the intensity of her emotions, the exploration of her sexuality and her lack of freedom. The kind of ecstatic love that is explored in this play makes people of all ages act impulsively and passionately.
What do enjoy or find challenging about taking on Shakespeare’s material?
I love the challenge of the text, it is so rich and dense and there is so much to discover. It’s exhilarating to me that there are these archaic images and ideas and yet they still ring so true.
I love that you discover something new every night. I’ve been lucky enough to perform in 6 shows with Bell Shakespeare and every show, I find something new every night on stage. It’s like a Where’s Wally, the 20th time you look at it you finally see the wizard was behind the dinosaur the whole time.
The production has been described as “exquisitely intimate” – how did you achieve this intimacy?
The spaces we are performing in (The Fairfax in Melbourne and The Neilson Nutshell in Sydney) are both small, and this means the audience is nice and close to all the action on stage. And thanks to Anna Tregloan’s design, our costumes and set are fairly minimalistic which I think adds to the sense of intimacy, as the focus is placed predominantly on the actors and the language.
My friend saw the show in Sydney in The Neilson Nutshell and he said he almost felt like he shouldn’t have been there in some moments because it felt so close and private. That’s kind of fun.
What was the rehearsal and pre-production process like for you working with Peter Evans?
Having worked with Peter Evans a few times before, we were able to hit the ground running when it came to rehearsal. I am also dear friends with Jacob, we make each other laugh a lot and that friendship allowed us to feel super comfortable working together. The rehearsal process was rigorous and playful, and I was able to really push myself to my limits with this role.
This is my fifth show with Peter and I can honestly say it’s the least we have spoken. Because usually I am playing a small role, so I sit next to him in rehearsals and chat about the scenes I am not in and bounce ideas about the production as a whole. I am in this show too much to do that – if I am not on the floor doing a scene, I am next door learning a sword fight. He came into my dressing room last night and we chatted about the show and I said to him “This is the first time I have no idea what show I am in”. He said, “It’s pretty weird. It’s like a Japanese ink drawing, sometimes you see a blue wave or a sketch of something, but it’s mostly just these shapes and lines and then it disappears.” I thought that was pretty cool. I’d see that show.