Celebrating their 20th birthday in 2021, Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble returns to the Roma Street Parkland Amphitheatre with their first full production of Romeo & Juliet. Directed by QSE Artistic Director Rob Pensalfini, who also played Friar Lawrence, and starring Liliana Macarone and Sarah Doyle in the titular roles, Romeo & Juliet was full of passion, emotion, and a good dose of humour.
It is one of the most well-known tragedies in the Western canon – two teenagers from feuding families fall in love, and by the end of the week there are six bodies in the ground. Romeo Montague (Macarone) and Juliet Capulet (Doyle) defy their families to follow their hearts, but it is their untimely deaths, not their love, that finally ends the feud between their families. The story has been told and retold, from West Side Story to Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, but Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble bring their trademark clarity and liveliness to this well-worn tale.
This production dived straight into the action rather than opening with the Prologue, and included scenes that I don’t recall seeing often, such as Friar Lawrence imploring Juliet to escape the tomb, and the city watch apprehending Balthasar and the Friar.
There was a wonderfully sweet chemistry between Liliana Macarone’s emotional and eager Romeo and Sarah Doyle’s wide-eyed Juliet from their first moments onstage together. By contrast, the energy between Rebekah Schmidt’s fiery Mercutio and John Siggers’ sharply dressed, barely restrained Tybalt crackled with malice and a hunger for violence. Schmidt gave a standout performance, bringing a ferocious and chaotic energy to the role of Mercutio and then switching seamlessly to the grounded anger of Verona’s Prince. Angus Thorburn was an excellent, exasperated Benvolio and, with an affected accent and manner, also brought a comedic angle to the character of Paris.
Meg Bennett played the role of Capulet with intensity as well as creating the dance choreography, Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn was a cold and aloof Lady Capulet, and Tom Coyle played a solemn Montague. Rob Pensalfini had a commanding stage presence as Friar Lawrence, and Rebecca Murphy was an excellent Nurse, full of cheerfully meandering news, stories, and advice. Grace Lofting, Isabella Ross, and William Summers completed the ensemble, each playing a number of roles with conviction.
A versatile set piece and a few simple props added depth to the stage and context to the story, and modern costuming designed by Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn clearly distinguished the Montagues from the Capulets. Lighting design by B’Ellana Hill added to the atmosphere of the play, and spotlighted key moments in the action.
Although it allowed some of the actors to demonstrate their swordplay skills, the incomplete substitution of swords for knives left the fight scenes, choreographed by Rob Pensalfini, feeling somewhat unbalanced (although, if anyone would face off against a swordsman with only a flick knife, surely it would be Schmidt’s fearless Mercutio).
Characteristic of Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s performances, the audience was seated on the amphitheatre stage, intimately close to the action and emotion of the work. The many-talented cast also performed live music as the band ‘Maiden Blush’ before the show and during the interval, playing original compositions inspired by the play, with music direction by Rob Pensalfini.
Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble will perform Romeo & Juliet at the Roma Street Parkland Amphitheatre, Brisbane, from 26 August – 12 September 2021.