With a striking set comprising of pillars and various levels of well lit “concrete”, all carrying the scars of a long running feud, the audience is transported in time and place as they take their seats at this year’s Maynardville tribute to Shakespeare, ROMEO AND JULIET.
This current production of ROMEO AND JULIET starts with the booming voice of John Maytham who steps into the authoritative role of the Prince, setting the tone for the Geoffrey Hyland directed ROMEO AND JULIET.
A true classic, this beloved play has captured many hearts over the years; it is a smart choice for the setting and the season at Maynardville.
Hyland notes that love permeates throughout this play of the Bard, specifically “the power of youthful love… fervent and intense from the moment the lovers first see each other”. The emphasis here is perhaps more on the youthfulness, to an almost absolutely innocent degree, in the current staging’s consideration of the love in question: This production gives us a very innocent perspective of Romeo and Juliet’s budding love… subtle touches, flighty butterfly kisses, all very virginal and pure and appropriate for school audiences.
Instead of showcasing the forcefulness of (possibly) true love, this ROMEO AND JULIET is rather a reflection on love (maybe even infatuation) as the cause of violence, subtly bolstered by the inevitability of fate.
Though ROMEO AND JULIET has never been my favourite of the Bard’s creations (the idea of celebrating teenage suicide as romantic simply feels a bit off), this was not my least favourite staging of this classic. Shortened from its usual 3 hours to a swift 1h40m it sits (literally) more comfortably than I expected. The treasures in the text are nevertheless celebrated, albeit that one pays for it with occasional sudden jumps that rush you towards the tragic end. That rush does slightly minimize the joy of the associated build-up, but this is a small price to pay for the shortened offering that gives you the gist of the Bard’s tale without the risk of losing the audience’s attention with a protracted staging.
The interaction between Juliet (Simone Neethling) and Romeo (Nahum Hughes) is a sweet one, but it doesn’t exude the burning chemistry one associates with these star-crossed lovers, or at least their onstage chemistry does not hint at the possibility of such a fiery connection. Neethling, however, leans into the sweeter side of her character, and becomes the quintessential love-struck teen. She understands the subtle comedic beats and exploits these with much charm. This reveals Juliet as an endearing character to the audience. Hughes has his own style of charm, but is overshadowed by the other strong personalities onstage. To fully fill the boots of Romeo may require a bit more bravado than opening night revealed, though that may naturally develop as the play settles.
Two key figures support the lovers in their pursuit of a happily-ever-after, the Nurse (Hannah Borthwick) and Friar Lawrence (Cleo Wesley). The performances of both Borthwick and Wesley are standouts. They understand the advancing purpose of their characters in the narrative. Their performances are delivered with the ease of those who know how to effortlessly step into the shoes of a character without overpowering the development of the story. Both offer great moments of relief to the audience and reassurance to the lovers, even though inevitable tragedy looms. They make you wonder, if only for a moment, whether there could yet be a fairytale ending for Romeo and Juliet.
The moments of interaction between Romeo and Benvolio (Tailyn Ramsamy) also add depth and purpose to this staging, as it fuels Romeo’s pursuit of love. When joining these two brothers in arms onstage, Jock Kleynhans as Tybalt ups the rivalry energy with dramatic effect. In a play that allows for many a great entrance as we shift between scenes, Kleynhans has bagged himself the best one in this production, looking as if he just stepped right out of Baz Luhrmann’s movie and onto the stage.
Most of the cast serve their characters well, doing what is expected to move this tale forward with theatrical purpose, although Pat Pillai as Capulet can perhaps just bring down the overacting a notch or two. The only performance that feels a bit wooden is that of Mihir Soni as Paris. His portrayal appears to stand in contrast to the character; it almost feels as if he is in a constant internal battle to suppress the character of Paris from revealing itself. This hampers the believability that Paris stands as true rival to Romeo for the hand of Juliet, resulting in the presence of Paris falling short of the required counterpoint effect.
The choreography and fight scenes, overseen by Mbongeni N Mtshali and Richard Lothian respectively, demonstrate subtlety and effectiveness in the shaping of scenes. Movement is further highlighted by the lovely (and truly flowing) costumes designed by Tineil Tredoux. The overall design of the production strikes a balance between romance and rivalry.
The looming tragedy throughout the play is also highlighted by the presence of a chorus of masked figures, a great theatrical touch that could be further developed to emphasise the ominous elements of the play. The masked presence at the Capulet ball, paired with Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 ‘Dance of the Knights’, is a particular highlight that illustrates the emotive power of music.
This ROMEO AND JULIET’s love-journey may feel a bit instant (just add water, or rather wine, it is Maynardville after all), but it is a lovely production that is truly family (and schools) friendly. So, grab the kids and take them to experience some theatre under the stars. Pack a picnic or snack from the food truck offerings at the festival, and make a whole outing of it!
You have until 24 February 2024 to see ROMEO AND JULIET at this year’s VR Theatrical presented Maynardville Open-Air Festival. Tickets can be booked online through Quicket.