Independent arts venue Fortyfivedownstairs celebrated its 10th anniversary last week. This week, it plays host to two single-sex Shakespeare productions, including a rather brilliant all-female Romeo and Juliet directed by one of the brightest emerging talents on the Melbourne scene, Zoey Dawson. Go forth and see it before the season ends this Saturday.
Romeo and Juliet, ZLMD Shakespeare / Henry IV Part I, Nothing But Roaring, fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Until March 11.
Zoey Dawson’s all-female Romeo and Juliet heralds the arrival of a fresh and exciting theatremaker. Her version might flummox traditionalists: the play is condensed into 90 minutes, the role of Romeo becomes a tag-team affair, physical comedy and choric effects are liberally deployed. Yet this vigorous adaptation elucidates the character of Juliet like no other.
Set in her girly bedroom, complete with Twilight DVDs and white teddies, it’s a production drenched in adolescent pheromones, poised dramatically between innocence and knowingness.
Brigid Gallacher’s Juliet blends moon-eyed wonder and a trenchant seriousness. She’s an “old head on young shoulders”, an awkward creature whose naivety chafes against the shadow of the smart and strong woman she might have become. All the toughness and vulnerability poured into the performance erupt in the final horror of her death scene.
With occasional reservations, a strong ensemble cast carries the hot-headed rambunctiousness of the young male characters. Of the five actors sharing Romeo, Naomi Rukavina’s brash and bashful physicality during the courting scenes, and Nikki Shiels’ tormented prelude to suicide, both straddle the gender divide with ease. Rukavina also nails the Friar’s benign authority, with Shiels terrifically lusty and dynamic as Mercutio.
The play’s adults tend toward caricature, effective with Capulet (Laura Maitland) and his wife (Devon Lang Wilton), but curiously underdrawn in the Nurse (Carolyn Butler). One of the things the production doesn’t bring alive is the teasing intimacy between the Nurse and her young charge, and if you’re going to stick the Nurse in a hot-pink mini, she should probably be more expansive and, well, more bogan.
It’s a rare miss in a production directed with emotional intelligence and stacks of sass. Dawson harnesses design elements and a range of performance styles, making Shakespeare sing to the experience of 21st century adolescence in a unique and powerful way.
In contrast, Nothing But Roaring’s Henry IV Part I returns to the conventions of Jacobean performance. Five male actors play all roles with overt theatricality. If all you care about are the exchanges between Falstaff (Tom Considine) and Hal (George Lingard), it’s worth seeing.
Considine fills every inch of the capacious comic role, in an eyebrow-wriggling, sack-swilling portrayal that could easily hold the main stage; Lingard’s angel-blond Hal gleams with feckless mischief, wry calculation and sudden valour. And Chris White’s lightning switches between supporting roles are borne aloft by command of the verse across several accents.
Alas, Bob Pavlich as Henry IV is papery and has little rhetorical authority. Richard II calls Henry IV: “A good king, a great king, and yet not greatly good.” Pavlich can’t even manage not great. Worse, Rob Conkie’s Hotspur is piping and whiny at crucial moments. Given the character denounces effeminate men from the start, and his rebellious machismo powers the drama, it’s an insurmountable problem.
This Henry IV has one testicle missing, although its participatory feel and better performances make it a reasonable introduction to the play.