Star-lit Tragedy of Star-cross’d Lovers Succeeds – The Age (23/12/94)

Star-lit Tragedy Of Star-cross’d Lovers Succeeds
News; Arts
LEONARD RADIC
23 December 1994
The Age

THE HOLIDAY season wouldn’t be complete without its Shakespeare under the stars. Glenn Elston pioneered the idea in 1988 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was an instant hit, drawing huge and enthusiastic crowds.

 

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare; directed by Glenn Elston; cast includes Nadine Garner, Jack Finsterer, Phil Sunner, Evelyn Krape, Rhys Muldoon and Glen Hogstrom. Old Melbourne Observatory Grounds.

 

THE HOLIDAY season wouldn’t be complete without its Shakespeare under the stars. Glenn Elston pioneered the idea in 1988 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was an instant hit, drawing huge and enthusiastic crowds.

 

In 1992, the Dream was retired and and a knockabout version of Twelfth Night slotted in its place. While amiable enough, it lacked the sheer enchantment of its predecessor, as well as its staying power, and was retired in turn.

This summer, Elston has decided to eschew comedy of romantic tragedy.

 

Don’t be deterred by that, however. For while his outdoor version of Romeo and Juliet may be light on subtlety, it’s rich in atmosphere, ambience and musicality. It’s also performed with great verve and energy.

 

As with the earlier productions, it owes much to the sheer magic of the setting. No forest glade this time; no lovers rowing on the lake.

Instead, Elston has transposed Shakespeare’s tragedy of two star- cross’d lovers to the grounds of the Old Melbourne Observatory in Birdwood Avenue.

 

I had never been to this corner of the Botanic Gardens before.

 

Neither, I suspect, had most of those who came on opening night equipped with rugs, hampers, fold-up chairs and mosquito coils. By day, the area probably looks scruffy. But by night, with the help of atmospheric lighting which is a feature of this production, it takes on a romantic air.

 

The production, like the Dream, is a peripatetic one. It begins on the lawns, moves to the 19th-century observatory buildings where tiered seating has been installed, and back to the lawns for the final 20 minutes. It must surely be the only time in the history of the play that fair Verona has boasted eucalypts and peppercorn trees and where Romeo has wooed his Juliet from an astrograph dome.

 

Elston’s production is not for purists. It is Shakespeare for the masses, with the emphasis on physical action. It begins with the cast, dressed in black cloaks, singing the opening lines of the play a capella style. The cloaks are then tossed aside, the master of revels tells the audience where to find the loos and not to litter the lawns.

 

Then a lusty fight with pitchforks and shovels breaks out between the warring families.

 

These early scenes are played strictly for comedy. Slapstick abounds. The ancient grudge dividing the Montagues and Capulets may be a long and bitter one; but you get no real sense of this from the playing. The important thing, Elston has obviously decided, is to relax the audience and get them on side.

 

Having done so, he gradually deepens the mood. What doesn’t change, however, is the sheer vigor of the performances. The street-fight, which results in the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio, is staged molto con brio. Romeo, played by Jack Finsterer, is a lusty red-blooded hero who shins up ladders, woos his Juliet with enthusiasm, and wields a mean sword. Rhys Muldoon’s Mercutio and Glen Hogstrom’s Tybalt are men of action too. Even Friar Lawrence, as played by Phil Sumner, is quick off the starting blocks on his way to Juliet’s tomb (but, tragically, not quick enough).

 

On the distaff side, Nadine Garner brings a romantic presence and intensity to the role of Juliet, while Evelyn Krape gets many a laugh as her lusty nurse.

 

Individually, the performances may be unremarkable. But collectively, they add up to a rare and enjoyable night of theatre which is admittedly long, occasionally gimmicky but never wearisome, and which has what the conventional theatre all too rarely has a real sense of occasion. It should prove a winner at the box office.

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