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Romeo and Juliet review (Sydney Opera House, Bell Shakespeare)

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For 25 years, Bell Shakespeare has been known for its contemporary productions of the works of Shakespeare and several of his contemporaries. But with the first production from new artistic director Peter Evans, who takes over from founding artistic director John Bell this year, the company has taken some of its cues from the time in which the Bard was writing.

The costumes in this production are all inspired by the Elizabethan period, and while the actors play and speak in a more contemporary style, the overall approach to the text is quite traditional. It seems a bit of an odd choice on Evans’ part, but this is a vigorous, entertaining and entirely accessible version of the great romantic tragedy. And as much as I adore Bell’s more adventurous reinventions, there is something strangely refreshing about this approach once in a while.

The production is blessed with Kelly Paterniti as Juliet. She makes plenty of interesting choices (perhaps a few too many) and she’s clearly a very skilled and imaginative actor, perfect for this role. It also doesn’t hurt that she looks exactly how you’d want a Juliet to look — her small frame and evolution from doe-eyed innocent to a young woman defining herself against her family is a thrill to watch.

Alex Williams doesn’t necessarily set any foot wrong as Romeo, but he doesn’t conjure up a whole lot of chemistry with Paterniti or really go beyond what’s expected of a Romeo.

And Michelle Doake delivers a broad and irresistible comedic turn as Nurse, placing her evolving relationship with Juliet near the centre of this play.

The other supporting performances vary in terms of quality, with Jacob Warner a standout as Romeo’s close friend, the level-headed Benvolio. He has an ease with the text and the other actors around him, delivering a strongly engaging and engaged performance.

Damien Strouthos is similarly energetic as Mercutio, even if there’s something jarring about the contemporary innuendos he finds in his performance.

Anna Cordingley’s set, made to look like a rundown theatre, complete with a proscenium arch and boxes to the side, is attractive and impressive to look at, even if it doesn’t speak to any of the deeper themes in the play. Many of her costumes are also quite beautiful (although Juliet’s bright orange cloak for the second act is a little on the garish side).

Evans uses the space of the stage smartly (until, perhaps, the final few scenes), creating unique worlds with the help of Benjamin Cisterne’s astute lighting out of the single set. Things could definitely burn a lot hotter, but the structure of the play is so solid, and this is such a clear-eyed rendering of it, that it’s difficult not to enjoy.

Romeo and Juliet is at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until March 27 and then tours to Canberra Theatre Centre and Arts Centre, Melbourne. Featured image by Daniel Boud

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