Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Sep 5 – 14, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Jamie Collette
Cast: Ali Aitken, Jackson Blair-West, Jayden Byrne, Sasha Dyer, Daniel Gabriel, David Halgren, Ryan Hodson, Cynthia Howard, Samantha Lambert, Charles Mayer, Chiara Osborn, David Soncin
Images by Isabella Torv
Juliet is now Julien, so the question would obviously relate to how this new perspective of gender in Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet would result. It might come as a surprise, that turning a heterosexual love story into a gay one, does not necessarily involve a complete and fundamental transformation of the centuries old play. The Capulet and the Montagues are still at loggerheads, and the drama we encounter is still about blood and kinship. All the conflict in Romeo & Julien come from the same sources as Shakespeare had intended, and it seems that making boys of both lovers, does not change anything in their story.
If one can accept the validity of an artistic license in this gender alteration, one could probably be willing to see that the original narrative can remain, given our understanding that gender is ultimately a meaningless construct. As director, Jamie Collette’s efforts at imposing a new inclusiveness to an old icon of Western literature is laudable, but his creative spirit can seem insufficiently radical, when viewed against the inevitably conservative associations when taking on the Bard. Nonetheless, there is inventiveness and vigour in Collette’s staging, ably assisted by Scott Witt’s dynamic fight choreography, and Sara Delavere’s colourful live music accompaniment.
The ensemble is not always cohesive or balanced, but strong acting by several individuals provide moments of professional sheen. Daniel Gabriel plays an androgynous, possibly bigender, Mercutio, introducing much needed flamboyance to proceedings, leaving an impression with the sheer magnitude of their stature and bold presence. Friar Lawrence is given detailed rendering by the dazzling David Halgren, who locates unexpected, and entertaining, dimensions for the pivotal role. Romeo is on this occasion, a tentative, quiet type, as performed by an overly naturalistic Jackson Blair-West. All eyes are on Jayden Byrne, who brings surprising emotional range to Julien, and is particularly satisfying as pop star, in several enjoyable musical interludes.
We are beginning a new era in which queerness does not have to tear our families apart. We have dreamt of a time of unprecedented normalisation, when queer people no longer have to come out, and in Romeo & Julien, we are given the opportunity to imagine that possibility. Whether one is inclined to find this Shakespeare title romantic or dreary, the present re-gendering is unlikely to cause any transformation to those prior opinions. It is true that whether one is male or female should have no bearing on outcomes, but it is undeniable that we have grown to expect queerness to add spice, especially when old and painfully obsolete texts are concerned.