14-year-old me could have never imagined that I would be playing Juliet in a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by William Shakespeare. Okay, maybe she could – but it was never going to happen; most community theatre companies are not regularly performing Shakespearean plays, usually opting for more contemporary plays with easier-to-understand language that is more appealing to younger audiences. So, you can imagine my excitement when Henry Lawson Theatre Inc. (housed at the Henry Lawson Sports Club in Werrington County) advertised auditions for an upcoming production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. And you can imagine my absolute elatement when I received the call from the director that I had been successful in receiving the role of Juliet?
Even more exciting than being chosen to play Juliet is director Nicole Madden’s vision for the show. Producing a play that has been performed for over 400 years is a daunting proposition. And it certainly begs the question; why perform Shakespeare in 2022? Why not produce new works that address the issues of today? Many before me have discussed the merit in performing Shakespeare contemporarily and the universal themes that are present in his plays. However, I think there is also something special about taking such an iconic play and dragging it into the 21st century – and that is exactly what this production aims to do. Nicole’s fresh take on the play keeps the beautiful original language but experiments with the setting to appeal to a wider audience.
The ‘fair Verona’ from the prologue has been reimagined as St Verona’s, a fictional private school in contemporary Australia. ‘Prince’ is the school principal, at her wit’s end trying to wrangle the Capulet and Montague cliques, who tussle in the school playground. The new setting really emphasises the youth of the characters, heightening the tragedy of their deaths when they occur. It really drives home the banality of a feud that takes the lives of teenagers.
Beyond just the aesthetics of the production, the traditional chorus has also been replaced. Instead, the all-knowing ‘Tattle Maiden’ (drawing inspiration from Gossip Girl of XOXO fame) runs the school, spreading gossip about the main players. Tattle Maiden’s meddling heightens the miscommunication that leads to the play’s tragic end. Her posts (recorded as audio and displayed as projections during the play) drive the action, causing parties to be crashed and deadly brawls to break out.
I think the best change, though, is the casting; a number of roles that are traditionally played by men are being played by women. Benvolio and Tybalt, two very interesting and complex characters are brought to life by two spectacular women who do an amazing job of making these iconic characters their own. The stand-off between Tybalt and Mercutio is richer for the newly injected gender difference, and it has made me audibly gasp on more than one occasion watching.
Audiences with a keen eye will notice that Romeo is also played by a woman: the amazing Amber-Mai Feeley. When Amber was cast as Romeo, it was important to us, as a cast and as a production, that her casting meant something. So, we’ve put in a lot of work figuring out exactly how Romeo being a girl changes things. Obviously, we had to go through our script and swap out “he” for “she” and “gentleman” for “lady”, but the changes go deeper than that. When Romeo says “I do love a woman”, this takes on a whole new meaning – not merely a declaration of love, but a coming out. Juliet’s arranged marriage to Paris becomes much more traumatic, not simply a different man, but a man instead of a woman. Romeo and Juliet’s love is not forbidden only because of the feud, but also because of the intense religious pressure from their families. It is a simple change, but it is a change that enriches the storytelling and makes it so much more impactful.
I am beyond proud to be a part of this production and to share this fresh take on a well-known classic. It is such an honour to take on such an incredible role, and to do so in such a modern production is even more incredible. The show opens on Friday the 15th of July and runs for three weekends at the Henry Lawson Theatre in Werrington County.
You can purchase tickets for $20 online or by calling 4905 5258.