Marisol, an Art Star of the ’60s, Gets a Retrospective

The exhibition includes over 250 pieces ranging from sketches and costume design to the artist’s later work with large-scale public sculpture.

Article by Samuel Rutter

marisol exhibition artLeft: John D. Schiff’s “Marisol With Dinner Date” (1963). Right: Marisol’s “John, Washington and Emily Roebling Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for the First Time” (1989). Credit: Left: Marisol Papers, Buffalo AKG Art Museum © John D. Schiff, courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York. Right: Buffalo AKG Art Museum, bequest of Marisol, 2016, 2021:50a-u © Estate of Marisol/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Venezuelan American sculptor Marisol shot to art-world stardom in the 1960s, starring in four of Andy Warhol’s early films. But as she began exploring ecological and feminist themes across different media in the 1970s, her work was dismissed as folk art, and the artist who once represented Venezuela at the 1968 Venice Biennale fell into relative obscurity. An upcoming exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, “Marisol: A Retrospective,” offers a correction. The fruit of a major bequest to the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (the artist left the entirety of her works in her personal collection to the institution), the exhibit will travel to several museums across North America and includes over 250 pieces ranging from sketches and costume design to her later work with large-scale public sculpture. Cathleen Chaffee, the chief curator of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum and the curator of the retrospective, notes that there’s an openness in Marisol’s work that invites audience engagement: “It’s uncanny how Marisol doesn’t finish her sculptures — she leaves part of them raw, which means there’s always [room] for the viewer to participate.” The artist’s striking wooden sculptures remain the star of the show. One highlight, “Dinner Date” (1963), is full of cheeky details, including colourful TV dinners and variations on a familiar figure: “Even in a portrait of someone else, Marisol is always using her own body as a means of identifying with her subjects,” says Mary-Dailey Desmarais, the chief curator of the MMFA. It’s an impulse that extends underwater, with the artist’s oceanic fascination represented by “Barracuda” (1971), a sleek, surreal 11-foot-long fish, finished with the artist’s pouting face in plastic.

“Marisol: A Retrospective” will be on view at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from Oct. 7 through Jan. 21, 2024,

The Female Artisans Honouring, and Reinventing, Japanese Noh Masks

In taking on the male-dominated theatrical craft, contemporary women carvers are changing the face of a centuries-old tradition.

Article by Hannah Kirshner

Japanese Noh mask_1The artist Shuko Nakamura at her home in Tokyo, wearing her “Migawari no Ki” (2020) mask. Photograph by Bon Duke.

One of the world’s oldest surviving theatrical arts, Japanese Noh grew out of various forms of popular entertainment at temples, shrines and festivals, including rites offered by villagers giving thanks for a bountiful harvest. During the Muromachi period (1336–1573), those varied productions were codified into an elaborately contrived entertainment for military leaders. The plays dramatise myths and tales from traditional Japanese literature with monologues, sparse bamboo flute melodies, percussion and tonal chanting. Often, supernatural beings take human form. The pace can be almost hypnotically slow, with the colours and embroidery of the actors’ costumes indicating their characters’ age and status. 

But perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Noh is the masks worn by performers. Of the hundreds of masks produced during the Muromachi period, about 40 to 50 form the archetypes for the masks made today, says the historian Eric Rath; many represent different characters, depending on the play. Master mask carvers have long been celebrated for their ability to create a static face that seems to come alive, its expression changing with the angle of the performer’s head and the way the light hits its features. While many Japanese people today have never seen a live Noh performance, the white visage and red lips of a Ko-omote mask (one of a few denoting a young woman) or the bulging golden eyes of the horned Hannya (one of the most famous of the demon masks, representing a wrathful, jealous woman) are both intrinsic to Japan’s visual culture.

Before World War II, only men were allowed to perform Noh professionally; now, some women play leading roles. But until recently, mask making, in which blocks of hinoki cypress carved in high relief are hollowed out, then primed with a white mixture of crushed oyster shells and animal glue — with mineral pigment for lips and cheeks, and gold powder or copper to give the teeth and eyes of masks depicting supernatural beings an otherworldly glow — was a craft largely handed down from father to son. 

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Nakamura in her Noh-inspired mask “Okina”. Photograph by Bon Duke.
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Nakamura in her Noh-inspired mask “Ikkaku Sennin” (2020). Photograph by Bon Duke.

That’s changed somewhat in the years since the Kyoto-based Mitsue Nakamura, now in her mid-70s, started learning the craft in the 1980s. When she began, she knew of only one other woman in the field, but this year, all four of her current apprentices, some of whom study for as long as 10 years, are female. Some adhere to the traditional archetypes and techniques, while others radically reinterpret them.

For purists, Nakamura says, a true Noh mask is never entirely decorative: it has to be used onstage and its maker must hew precisely to a narrow set of centuries-old parameters. Today, Nakamura says, actors prize masks that are antiques or appear to be. Her pieces, each of which takes about a month to complete, often look older than they are thanks to the shadows she smudges into the contours of the face, or a weathering she achieves by scratching the paint with bamboo. 

In 2018, the Kanagawa-based playwright and screenwriter Lilico Aso came to see Nakamura’s process firsthand because she was interested in developing a character who was a Noh mask carver; instead, she became a mask carver herself, drawn, she says, to the idea of being “both a craftsman and an artist”. She’s been studying with Nakamura ever since and, last year, in a show titled “Noh Mask Maker Mitsue Nakamura and Her Four Disciples” at Tokyo’s Tanaka Yaesu gallery, she exhibited four masks called “Time Capsule” inspired by celebrities and fictional characters. Rihanna became an earth goddess with pearlescent blue lips and eye shadow. Ariana Grande morphed into the moon princess Kaguya, who, in an ancient tale, rejects all her mortal suitors and returns to her lunar home; in Aso’s rendering, she has the high, soft eyebrows of a Noh beauty. 

For some female Noh artisans, subtle changes to traditional forms emerge from a deep personal connection. Keiko Udaka, who also works in Kyoto, grew up steeped in Noh, with a father who was both a performer and a mask maker. She began studying with him when she was a teenager; in 2021, after he died, she took over an unfinished Noh play he was working on. While one of her brothers completed the script, Udaka created a mask for the main character, a folk hero who starved to death while cultivating barley for future generations, imbuing it with the features of their late father. Such homages aren’t uncommon, and the allure is obvious: as Udaka says, a painstakingly crafted carving is more indelible than a photo. “Memories can be recorded too easily in many places now,” she says, “and they don’t remain in our minds.” 

While Udaka’s departures from tradition are subtle, those of the Tokyo-based Shuko Nakamura (no relation to the Kyoto mask maker) are unignorable. She makes masks out of modelling clay and paper rather than wood. One mask depicts an old woman, a crown of blue-black crows circling above her forlorn face, alluding to the ubasute story — which appears in both folk tales and Noh — of an elderly family member abandoned in the forest. With deep smile lines, a long horsehair beard and bushy pompom eyebrows, another mask honours the form of Okina, a spirit who appears as an old man. A gnarled pine tree sprouts from the mask’s head in place of hair; at the roots nestle a pair of turtles. The conifers and reptiles, she says, are references to the characteristic illustrations on the fan Okina holds when he dances.

Out of respect for the ancient art, Shuko Nakamura refers to her creations as “creative masks” rather than Noh masks, but the tribute is clear. And even a traditional mask maker like Mitsue Nakamura sees the place for works that expand the boundaries of Noh’s conservative culture. “Of course, the best masks are those used onstage,” she says, “but I think we should also make Noh masks that can stand on their own.

The Artists Depicting the Power and Strangeness of Breasts

New generations of women painters are challenging centuries of art history with their nuanced, empathetic renderings of bare-chested bodies.

Article by Zoë Lescaze

16-TMAG-ART-BREASTS-2Hayv Kahraman's "Boob Gold" (2018) is one of several works by the artist addressing the objectification of immigrants and refugees. © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and Vielmetter, Los Angeles.

Women’s breasts have been a fixation of Western artists since Western art began. The prehistoric sculptor who carved a hunk of mammoth ivory into the “Venus of Hohle Fels” — the earliest known depiction of a human being, unearthed in Germany in 2008 — gave her proportions fit for the pages of Juggs magazine. Since then, male artists have portrayed breasts as erotic objects, fonts of nourishment and sometimes both at once, as in the case of racy Baroque depictions of the Roman virtue Caritas as a young woman nursing her father. Bare-chested women have represented our brightest political ideals (as in the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 allegorical work “Liberty Leading the People”) but also our worst transgressions: in medieval European art, lust often appeared as a woman with snakes biting her breasts, an allusion to their supposedly ruinous seductive power. Indeed, these humble mounds of tissue, as the feminist scholar Marilyn Yalom writes in her 1998 book, “A History of the Breast”, have long been the focal points for various desires: “Babies see food. Men see sex. Doctors see disease. Businessmen see dollar signs.”

But what do female painters see? It was only in the early 20th century that women began to regularly depict their own nude bodies. In 1906, the German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, who had recently left her husband to pursue a bohemian life in Paris, scandalised viewers with two portraits of herself wearing little more than a favourite amber necklace. The French model turned painter Suzanne Valadon began to produce nude self-portraits in 1917 and continued to do so as she aged — a radical pursuit then as now. By the end of the century, the American artist Joan Semmel had taken the project of women regarding their own bodies to its logical extension by painting first-person views of herself — incandescent landscapes of pink and ochre flesh in which breasts dominate the foreground — and the British artist Jenny Saville had launched a career depicting, with urgent slashes and stippled patches of oil paint, bulging breasts that flop and sag on bodies that defy mainstream standards of beauty.

Bare-breasted women have served as allegories for political causes in paintings such as "Liberty Leading the People" (1830) by Eugène Delacroix. © 2013 RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum). Photograph by Michel Urtado.

When women paint nude women, it’s often said that they are “reversing” the male gaze that has dominated art history. But the reality is more complex, and the range of perspectives among these artists is broader than this shorthand would suggest. New generations of painters are depicting breasts in unorthodox shapes and colours, adding them to figures who are not necessarily female and challenging other conventions, both social and stylistic. We might think we know what a breast looks like, but even the most basic preconceptions falter in much of their work.

“In some ways there are parallels between my gaze and the male gaze,” says the Brooklyn-based artist Jenna Gribbon, 44, who mostly paints her spouse, the musician Mackenzie Scott. “There is a sexual and romantic component to my depictions of my wife. But the difference is, as a woman, I’m painting her from a deep well of experience of knowing what it is to be seen and regarded and to have my image consumed.” Tall and blond, Scott appears semi-undressed or fully naked in everyday domestic settings — hunched over a laptop on the couch in one canvas, clipping her toenails above the toilet in another — and in more theatrical tableaus involving harsh lights, mirrors, blindfolds and green-screen backdrops.

In all these works, Gribbon renders Scott’s nipples in a searing shade of fluorescent pink, a hue so electric, it makes the viewer inescapably aware of themselves as a voyeur and, Gribbon hopes, more empathetic with the person on display.

Hayv Kahraman, 42, who was born in Baghdad and now lives in Los Angeles, remembers wandering the halls of Florentine museums as a young woman, surrounded by pale painted bodies with small, spherical breasts. “I was so enamoured with that aesthetic,” she says. “I still thought Europe was the epitome.” Kahraman spent her adolescent years in Sweden, where she perfected a Stockholm accent and bleached her dark hair blond, and in her 20s, this cultural dissonance unleashed a hybrid avatar in her work: an alluring, almond-eyed woman with a jet black unibrow, white skin and impossibly round breasts. She has rendered the character as an acrobat, whose body contorts without breaking, and with breasts mutating into the mortars Kahraman saw on the streets of Baghdad as a child — a comment on the idea of being “at war with one’s own body”. Breasts become weapons in less literal ways in other works. The woman in “Boob Gold”, an oil painting on wood from 2018, stares defiantly back at us as she tugs open her dress to expose a coin slot, the kind you might find on a donation box, at the centre of her chest. The work addresses what Kahraman sees as the exploitative dimensions of humanitarian aid. “Your body becomes a spectacle,” she says. “But on the other side, she’s exuding this power.” Sexual objectification may be an unavoidable condition of being a woman, especially one seen as exotic by the West, but Kahraman suggests it comes with its own forms of strength.

The German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker was the first woman known to have painted and exhibited nude self-portraits, including “Self-Portrait on Sixth Wedding Anniversary” (1906). Courtesy of the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, Bremen.
Jenna Gribbon paints her wife, the musician Mackenzie Scott, with fluorescent pink nipples, infusing domestic scenes such as "Toe Nail Trim" (2021) with a dash of science fiction. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery.

Not all artists painting breasts are interested in them as sexual objects, but their erotic associations can be difficult to shake. In 2020, the American artist Sarah Slappey, 39, exhibited a series of surreal canvases in which disembodied arms, creamy lozenges and liquid tendrils collide with petal pink breasts resembling long balloons, complete with puffy areolas and noodle-like, upturned nipples. Some breasts ooze drops of milk that morph into strings of pearls. Slappey, who painted these works after night feeding her nephew with a bottle for several weeks, was thinking about the transformation of nipples after childbirth, and the mingled pleasure and pain of being in a woman’s body (she compares it to a “cupcake full of thumbtacks”). Still, viewers were quick to read the tangles of rosy limbs as erotic. “Maybe in our language we don’t have enough separation between eroticism and sensuality or touch and the body, so people just overlap them too much,” says Slappey. “Or people just like sex.” Frustrated, she took a temporary break from breasts to focus on ankles and hands.

The British artist Somaya Critchlow, 30, who depicts Black women with big hair and pneumatic breasts in compact oil paintings saturated with warm earth tones and jewel-hued shadows, has similarly expressed exasperation with one-note readings of her work. “People try to position my work as being sex-positive or political or whatever — and it’s not, it’s just investigative,” she told The Guardian. Her subjects might lie back luxuriously or bend forward, squeezing their breasts together, like pinup girls, but they also tend to exude a strong sense of interiority — mingled states of ambivalence, mischief and desire that make them whole human beings. Endowing them with exaggerated breasts is a provocation to the viewer to move past the obvious. “I’m just going to blow this up as big and silly as I can,” she told one journalist, and still “make it a serious painting. And what can you say to me about that?”

Larissa De Jesús Negrón, in her late 20s, renders breasts more realistically than some of her peers, using airbrushed acrylic and soft pastels to create subtle gradients of colour, but they also speak, in her work, to the ways in which selves can transform. Raised in a devout Christian family in Puerto Rico with what she describes as “really harsh rules revolving around being modest and not showing too much skin”, she began painting naked women as a teenage rebellion. Soon it became a form of therapy. “I was able to process a lot of self-hate and shame that I felt around my body, and nudity in particular,” she says. Now based in Queens, De Jesús Negrón portrays herself, in all-consuming bouts of worry, spells of serene self-acceptance and ambiguous moods somewhere in between, flaunting the nipple hairs her mother once told her to pluck. In “Soy Libre Mami ” (2023), a close-up view of a single breast in shades of green and mauve, the curlicue strands form cursive letters spelling the first two words of the title. Translation: “I’m free”.

Left: Sarah Slappey, who painted “Cloud Tangle” (2020), has chafed against erotic interpretations of her work. Right: nipple hairs are proudly on display in the work of Larissa De Jesús Negrón, including “Soy Libre Mami” (2023). From left: courtesy of the artist and Sargent's Daughters; courtesy of the artist.

Queer painters, perhaps because they understand better than most that body parts aren’t always reliable indications of identity, are creating some of the most original images of breasts, ones that topple assumptions and rigid categories. The New York-based Iranian artist Maryam Hoseini, 35, depicts breasts without necessarily depicting women. Some of the headless figures in her paintings — bodies composed of flat, interlocking shapes inhabiting science fiction landscapes and fragmented rooms rendered in vivid shades of violet, teal and acidic blue — have three or more. Others have needle-sharp nipples or geometric voids instead. “For me, breasts are a place of transformation,” says Hoseini, whose desire to imagine alternative, futuristic worlds in art reflects, among other things, her experiences with restrictive laws dictating gender expression and sexuality in Iran. “I use them in a way to subvert this power structure, as a place to empower my figures.”

The 38-year-old Los Angeles-based painter Christina Quarles, whose riotously unpredictable figures embrace, merge and collide in kaleidoscopic environments of gestural shapes and patterns, is always amused when critics call her characters women just because they have what look like breasts. “Sometimes, gender is the last thing in the world that’s indicated by a breast,” says the artist, who regularly attends life drawing classes and references a range of different models with each figure she paints. A woman whose fair skin belies her multiracial heritage, Quarles is acutely aware that physical features can be misleading. “Boobs are an interesting marker of gender because they interact with age and weight so much,” she says. “I think, regardless of your gender identity, it’s a part of your body that does shift over time.” Her figures have breasts that dangle low, point skyward or sink into what might be rolls of flesh or stacks of ribs.

When Quarles was pursuing her MFA at Yale University, a teacher once told her, “The boobs in your paintings are like the eyes: the windows to the soul.” She remembers thinking this “was kind of a weird thing to say”, but that it “may be true in some ways”. Depictions of breasts — objects of both obsessive fascination and strict social control — have long provided insight into the mores and politics of their time. But in the work of these painters, breasts also communicate something more personal; not simply metaphors for larger ideas, they give form to individual experiences. They are weird, unruly and sometimes playful. If this work conjures something universal, it’s the constant flux of flesh — the bizarre phenomenon of being in a body that is changing by the second.

As the Artistic Director at Australian Dance Theatre, Daniel Riley is Exactly Where He Needs to Be

The first Aboriginal dancer to be appointed artistic director of a non-First Nations dance company, Daniel Riley takes his cues from some powerful role models.

Article by Mariela Summerhays

Daniel Riley_1The artistic director and “Tracker” choreographer, Daniel Riley. Photograph by Jonathan van der Knaap.

It is early on the morning of a public holiday, and Daniel Riley, the artistic director at Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), is working. He’s found a moment between rehearsals — at the time, the company was performing two original works in separate cities — to reflect on the path that has brought him here. “I remember being picked up from either soccer or cricket, depending on the season, and swinging via the dance studio to pick up my sister,” he says. Riley soon joined in, the only boy in a room full of girls, tap shoes on his feet. “I’ve got really beautiful memories of being young and having so much fun dancing,” he says. 

Serendipitously, it was through ADT’s founder and inaugural artistic director, Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM, that he discovered contemporary dance. Riley was living in Canberra at the time and his father, a primary teacher, sought the advice of Dalman, who was offering classes at the school. “Our spirals connected very early on, when I was 12, then our spirals kind of went like this,” says Riley, rotating his fingers away from each other. “And then we’ve connected again this way, with me leading this company.”

After 12 years as a senior artist and choreographer at the esteemed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander company Bangarra Dance Theatre, and a stint as an independent artist and collaborator, Riley replaced ADT’s outgoing director, Garry Stewart, in 2022. The appointment makes him the first Aboriginal artistic director at a non-First Nations dance company. “I have this beautiful opportunity to hold space for artists,” says Riley, “and to be the one to facilitate artistic exchange and growth, and collaboration and relationship building.”

Through dance, Riley has been able to connect more deeply with his Aboriginal heritage. “I didn’t grow up on Country,” he says. “I didn’t grow up surrounded by my Wiradjuri community.” It was only while touring Dubbo, NSW, during his tenure at Bangarra Dance Theatre, that he learned
of the significance of his surname. This inspired the first work he choreographed, “Riley” (2010), which centres on the
work of a cousin, the late Michael Riley, an acclaimed photographer and filmmaker. Riley describes this piece as dipping a “toe back into my kinship system”.

In his latest work, “Tracker”, Riley explores more of his family story through a multidisciplinary production that utilises dance, text, visual art and song (the national tour continues to Brisbane, from September 20–23, and regional South Australia, from October 31 to November 9). “All the important pillars of our First Nations storytelling,” he explains. One of Riley’s first works since joining the company, it explores the life of his great-great-uncle Alec “Tracker” Riley, a Wiradjuri Elder who served in the police force as a tracker. Alec’s career success — which included solving the missing persons case of Desmond Clark, a two-year-old boy who disappeared near his home — saw him become the first Aboriginal person to gain the rank of sergeant in the New South Wales police force. 

“There’s this incredible kind of strength in a Blak man wearing a colonially implemented uniform in service to a crown that was dispossessing of us — of our land, our lore, our language, our family, our sense of belonging and self,” Riley says. “Yet he served; he felt a great responsibility for the people who lived on our country and who trod on that land.”

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Tyrel Dulvarie wears a colonial uniform in “Tracker”. Photograph by Konathan van der Knaap.

Upon his retirement in 1950, after four decades of service, Alec received a watch from the government. At the time, Aboriginal people were not eligible for a pension; it wasn’t until 16 years later that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders became entitled to pensions, as well as maternity and unemployment benefits. “He didn’t care what colour they were, but they cared what colour he was,” says Riley. “That respect was never mutual.”

With “Tracker”, Riley aims to give his great-great-uncle the respect he never received outside of his community during his lifetime. “ ‘Tracker’ is the very first fully self-determined Blak work that ADT has ever presented,” says Riley. Created with the support of Ilbijerri Theatre Company, the work is produced by a team of First Nations creatives, including Alec’s granddaughters, whose recollections of spending time with Alec by the river — where he cooked for them and told them off for taking fruit from his trees — are intrinsically woven into the show. “As the first First Nations artistic director of ADT, I think it’s really important that I can tell these stories,” says Riley. “For me, it’s just been such a joy and a privilege to tell the tale of a man nobody really knew.”

Daniel Riley_3
An all-First Nations cast performs in Riley’s multidisciplinary production. Photograph by Pedro Greig.

There’s a moment in the work, an exploration of the Clark case, when Alec is shown discovering the young boy’s bones. A lullaby plays, a song about the moon waking the boy and leading him to a place to sleep under the stars. The poem is read by Riley’s then five-year-old son, the youngest of the tracker’s lineage to contribute to the show. In fact, Alec had known a year earlier — when Clark had first gone missing — where to look for him, but he had been blocked from entering a white landowner’s property on account of being Aboriginal. “Uncle Alec waited for that old man to pass, out of respect, and then he went to the mother and said, ‘I know where he is,’ ” says Riley. 

The production’s final, haunting image is of a dancer putting on a police jacket then a bag of stones being poured over him. “For me, the image and the sound of that is incredibly powerful,” says Riley. “The stones acting as bones or bodies, but also the cultural weight that all First Nations contemporary artists feel — that we are representing a legacy. I am very, very far down river from my ancestors and my artistic Elders and cultural Elders, you know? So there is an ongoing kind of cultural weight to that.”

Is it a burden, carrying that cultural weight? “We are the oldest contemporary dance company in the country, so we are the Elder of contemporary dance in this country,” says Riley, who feels strongly that he is where he’s meant to be. “If I can facilitate storytelling that questions and interrogates the social, cultural, racial and political complexities of Australia, of Australian-ness, and what it is to be Australia, then I feel like I would’ve succeeded in why I’ve been here.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a burden at all,” he continues. “I find it’s an opportunity.”

A ‘Romeo and Juliet’ That Dials Up the Playfulness and the Intimacy

The stars of Bell Shakespeare’s new production, Jacob Warner and Rose Riley, on leaning into lust and making Romeo fun (“We have seen enough earnest, sappy Romeos”).

Article by Victoria Pearson

Romeo and Juliet_3Rose Riley and Jacob Warner in Bell Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". Photograph courtesy of Bell Shakespeare.

“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.

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Rose Riley and Jacob Warner in Bell Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". Photograph by Brett Boardman.
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Rose Riley and Jacob Warner in Bell Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". Photograph by Brett Boardman.

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.

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Rose Riley, Robert Menzies and Jacob Warner in Bell Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". Photograph by Brett Boardman.

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.