The Neilson Nutshell, June 28


In case we, the audience, are as thick as planks, the Prologue lumbers on and ensures we know that from the moment the star-cross’d lovers lay eyes upon each other, the die is cast: they will take their own lives. Both Romeo and Juliet have some inkling of this, but dismiss the risk to lie in the arms of rapture. The enduring fascination of the play lies not in the tragedy of their deaths, but in their blind, ecstatic dance towards it.

Rose Rilely and Jacob Warner. Photos: Brett Boardman.

In this regard Peter Evans’ Bell Shakespeare production serves up a Juliet to justify a thousand scaled balconies. Rose Riley has a voice to bring the verse alive: to make it twirl about our minds and enchant us all afresh. She matches that with a physical presence that’s all tiptoes and girlish giggles to begin, and then swiftly matures into furtive stratagems to satisfy not just her lust, but a passion so profound that death is infinitely preferable to loss. Riley makes us sigh with Juliet’s lovesickness, exalt in her ecstasy at the news she is to marry Romeo, and recoil when she unleashes the tempests of her imagination. Riley’s is the most disarming Juliet we’ve seen in Sydney for many a year, and even were everything else awry, it would be worth going just to see her.

But all is not awry, this being a cut above recent Bell Shakespeare productions. To begin, it christens the company’s fine new theatre at Pier 2/3, The Neilson Nutshell, a 295-seat space with the audience on three sides of an extravagantly large playing area. Designer Anna Tregloan offers no set beyond two sizeable podiums, with the little gulf between the two able to represent many spatial separations, including that of the balcony scene. This very bareness of setting immediately switches our attention to the acting and the words.

Jacob Warner’s Romeo is not quite the foil Riley’s Juliet demands. He delivers a suitably playful, amusing, loving version of this essentially honourable character, but his voice cannot pick up the verse and carry it to our ears with Riley’s panache.

Rose Riley, James Evans and Monica Sayers. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Among the rest Blazey Best stands out in gender-blind casting as Mercutio. She swaggers heroically without lampooning the dear man, and catches all his laughs as those with fast hands pluck flies from the air. But one must question the decision to have her deliver Mercutio’s immortal “Queen Mab” speech all but unlit. Presumably the thinking was to make us focus on this phantasmagoria in all its glory, but surely something of the actors’ animation should be allowed to infuse this vision.

Lucy Bell is a younger, slighter and sisterlier Nurse than most, but was hard to hear on occasion. James Evans and Monica Sayers join many actors before them in failing to evade the woodenness in Juliet’s dour parents – parents who would goad any teenager worth the name to disobey or leave. Robert Menzies is a quirky, likable Friar Laurence, who, like many self-styled philosophers, is not quite as savvy as he thinks.

Nigel Poulton has expertly choreographed the fight scenes, especially that between Romeo and Tybalt (Leinad Walker), even if one still has a lingering sense of staginess rather than fury. Evans, meanwhile, has the pace slow across the last two acts, just when it should accelerate. But the true match for Riley’s Juliet is Max Lyandvert’s music, on the very ethereality of which rides the sense of doom that has been foretold by the Prologue at the outset.

Until August 27.