>romeo and juliet by i theatre

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 30 jun 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the victoria theatre
>rating: **

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


It seems that Shakespeare has, in recent years, regained an interest not only in the field of academia but in the playgrounds of popular culture as well. The recent transposition of the bard's work onto screen (as a medium for popular entertainment) in Ethan Hawke's and Mel Gibson's 'Hamlet', and 'Titus' (which stars Anthony Hopkins) among other popular favourites such as Luhrman's 'Romeo + Juliet' (that brought fame to Leonardo di Caprio) are cases in point. Less considered as 'high-brow' literature, Shakespeare today seems to possess a universality that speaks even to the common person on the street. To encapsulate the popularity of his works, in a cliché, he has perhaps (as my supervisor purports) something for everyone.

This sudden upsurge of Shakespearean consciousness has inspired several productions in the local theatre scene as well. The effort of I Theatre, in this production of ROMEO AND JULIET, follows a most recent (and rather well-received) 'R&J', directed by Joe Calarco, and 3.14's 'Twin Tempest' project.

'Romeo and Juliet' can perhaps be said to be the most popular of Shakespeare's plays, and certainly most familiar to local students of literature who have most probably engaged the text meticulously in preparation for the O-Levels. Because of the seeming universality of this love-tragedy (despite being oblivious to everything else that precedes, almost everyone knows the tragic end of the two lovers), many productions have sought to stage the play in a unique (and even parodic) manner yet striving to retain what is the (tragic) "essence" of the play. ROMEO & JULIET, however, fails on both accounts. The gruelling 3-hour production is nothing more than a literal transposition of the text to the stage.

>>'This gruelling 3-hour production is nothing more than a literal transposition of the text to the stage'

In spite of director Brian Seward's attempts to evoke the universality of issues found in the play (such as parental neglect, violence, rage, death and love) by creating an Asian setting yet maintaining Shakespeare's language, the use of traditional Asian garb, though visually impressive, serves to produce nothing more than a superficial transformation. Unlike 3.14's 'Wayang Tempest' whose overlay of traditional Indonesian culture on Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' was innovative and convincing, the use of traditional swords and the occasional Asian gestural formalities did nothing to reinvent 'Romeo and Juliet'.

In most theatrical productions and even in film, music is used to accentuate the mood and atmosphere of the play. The music in ROMEO AND JULIET was neither memorable nor audible and served merely to bridge the acts. The lighting was not exploited in interesting ways but abided by outmoded theatrical conventions of focus.

In all of Shakespeare's tragedies, the centre (or locus) of action is located in (and as) the protagonists, hence the entitling of each tragedy after the name of the tragic hero(es). It is from this locus in which the tragedy springs forth or is enacted upon. Fate, circumstance, mischance, providence, action and inaction circumvent this locus in a whirligig of motion that causes the eventual tragic end. This sense of "star-crossed" "epic-ness" was absent from the production largely due to the inadequate portrayals of the two tragic lovers.

Romeo, played by Christian J. Lee, could seemingly not be immersed as Romeo but always only played Romeo. The lack of gestural and facial statement and the general stiffness of his presence on stage made the portrayal of Romeo a stock, run-of-the-mill character, one who would be depicted in an amateur college production. Amber Simon, as Juliet, fared slightly better but her rapid delivery of Shakespearean language made clear to one familiar with Shakespeare that she did not understand what she was speaking. Her speeches and soliloquies came across as a well-remembered script, in delivery for an oral examination.

"Holy palmers' kisses" and "Pilgrim hands" in touch do not merely create the chemistry of Romeo and Juliet. It is through the poetry and language that the strength of romance and the epic-ness of the tragedy is engendered and effected. As John Russell Brown notes, the language in 'Romeo and Juliet' embodies the complex passion and the sensuousness and restlessness of the lovers. The changing pulse of the dialogue communicates the wide range of feelings in the play, from destructive compulsion to silent tenderness. Neither Christian nor Amber, nor the rest of the cast, knew the semantic intensity of Shakespeare's language and density of imagery. Shakespeare's language is, as Frank Kermode argues, not merely functional. In addition, as Brown observes, phrasing, rhythm, tension, relaxation, metrical variations, and the breathing needed for utterance all require the actors' physical engagement and this conveys the characters' involvement in the situation as much as the words themselves. Both were, however, absent here.

In 'Romeo and Juliet', there is a constant need for speed. Speed becomes a recurrent motif in the play. It is about the speed of falling in and out of love, the speed of successive interjecting events and the lack of speed in communication that (in)directly causes the death of the lovers. This sense of acceleration is aptly captured in this production where the successive on-stage and off-stage presence of the actors facilitated a generally linear continuous flow of the play. However, rapidity applied to Shakespearean speech demonstrates a lack of understanding and portrays itself as an eager need to accomplish delivering the prescribed lines. Even my young friend, who is new to Shakespeare in performance, noted how there was a general lack of pauses or emphasis in the actors' speech.

Perhaps the most laudable aspect of this production was Keegan Kang's portrayal of Mercutio. Ironically, his convincing portrayal of Shakespeare's Mercutio as an energetic, buoyant comedian with a bawdy sense of humour and a high-strewn bravado, overshadowed the focus that was supposed to be the lovers. Keegan evokes the very character that is Mercutio and brings to life, by his energetic stunts and quick-witted responses, what is a dreary speech on Queen Mab. The highly-sexual sub-text in this play is effectively communicated by Keegan's understanding and subsequent convincing delivery of his lines, enacting clearly (and humorously) what would have been left to the imagination if the play were read as text. Mercutio's hot-headed instinctive love for danger and need for action then serves as a fitting antithesis to Romeo's passivity as seen in this production. Keegan assumes the role comfortably without exaggeration, as perhaps does Jonathan Lim who portrays Lord Capulet.

'Romeo and Juliet' is not just a beautiful love story. It is, as the production flyers suggest, about ";blood, death, love [and] rage". ROMEO & JULIET, however, was none of these things and exists in a state of potential that is yet to be fulfilled.