Studio 77, Victoria University, 77 Fairlie Tce, Kelburn, Wellington

22/05/2018 - 26/05/2018

Production Details

“Passion lends them power”

At 77 Fairlie Terrace, an abandoned theatre sits untouched, unnoticed, almost empty. A group of lost teens unearth the history within the walls and find themselves haunted by the ghosts of characters once played on its stage.

This May 22-26, 300 level theatre students of Victoria University take over this abandoned theatre, and present Romeo and Juliet. An exploration of youth, love and impulse.

The 19-strong ensemble, directed by renowned Shakespearean Director and Dramaturg Lori Leigh and supported by industry experts in performance, design, stage combat and dance, tackle one of Shakespeare’s classics with a new, youthful energy.

Within Verona’s violent walls, the young inhabitants of an “ancient quarrel” dream up moments of love and joy. Battling against the social construct of this brutal world, they are absorbed into it’s depths, and the rest is tragedy.

Romeo and Juliet invigorates Studio 77 (77 Fairlie Terrace, Kelburn) from May 22 to May 26 with six fresh and energising performances:

Tuesday 22 May- 7pm (OPENING NIGHT GALA)
Wednesday 23 May- 2pm (MATINEE)
Wednesday 23 May- 7pm
Thursday 24 May- 7pm (SCHOOLS NIGHT, incl. Q+A)
Friday 25 May- 7pm
Saturday 26 May- 7pm (CLOSING NIGHT)
Book via:

“What we’ve done so far is pretty radical, definitely not what’s expected of a classic Shakespeare production. I think [this] is something that will surprise our audience again and again”- Nellie Panina (Benvolio)

“Comedy is a driving force in the play [which] I’m ecstatic about. It’s like an ol’ vintage cheese, it hits you as soon as you open the packet”- Holly McLauchlan (Sampson)

Theatre ,

Strong, bold and fun

Review by Patrick Davies 23rd May 2018

This boisterous production of Romeo and Juliet, presented by the students of THEA 302: Conventions of Drama and Theatre, offers a warm-hearted love story on a windy, rainy night.

The learning objectives of this paper involve researching the background of Shakespearean theatre, performance, stage combat, dance, text exploring “early Modern dramaturgy and stagecraft including the conditions of performance in English public, private and court playhouses between 1576 and 1642.” Suffice to say the thrust stage in “this abandoned theatre” allows for audience in the balconies, direct address of course, and we are lit throughout the performance.

As director Lori Leigh notes in the programme, “Four-hundred and twenty-one years later we are doing this play, and in everything from iPhone commercials to internet memes the couple lives on.” Certainly true, with a great many presented in a video montage as we take out seats. The research certainly shows here presenting productions, ballets, memes, etc. from serious to the achingly funny, accompanied by live pub band ‘Pretty Piece of Flesh’ (Emma Katene, Liam Kelly, Peter Scriven) – who will provide background music, interludes and songs, all on the theme of love, if not directly songs quoting or reflecting the R&J story.

And so, the play happens. No point in describing the plot. As the memes have it – who doesn’t know it already? And if we know the story and especially the ending then it’s the getting there that is the important thing.

As an ensemble, the company acquit themselves well. The first act is a little shaky, but they very soon take hold of the material with confidence, conveying well-crafted characters with clear arcs. You know I’m not going to mention everyone right? There are over 20 performers and each also has a secondary role as ASM, Dance Captain, Fight Captain, Costumes etc. Though certainly there are stand-out moments and scenes.

Nellie Panina’s Benvolio has a quiet strength throughout, as Romeo’s loyal but helpless friend, that pays off in the pathos of the end scene. Austin Harrison’s Mercutio’s Mab speech and Rosie Glover’s Juliet’s “Only God knows when we’ll meet again” both start off fabulously with nuance but (and this happens a lot elsewhere in the production), once volume is mistaken for passion they become ranty.

Rosie Glover and Caleb Hill (Romeo) are the classic cis-gendered white couple (more on this later) whose best moments are the quiet ones, especially beautiful and caring in the post-coital scene before they part for the last time.

The design elements (scenography mentored by Tony De Goldi) reflect the abundance of research. The foyer has some of this research on the walls, the place is strewn with drop cloths displaying R&J themed graffiti, the windows are festooned with industrial plastic wrap warning of ‘Danger’. There is one giant opaque white curtain at the back of the set which can be utilised in many ways, hiding the names of the families graffitied on the back wall – the font seems so 90s. There are also similar dirty drop-cloths strewn around the walls making me think of ghosts. My companion quips they might be ‘ghosts of tutors past’, this is before we realise that the programme tells us “Tonight, a group of 300-level theatre students unearth the history within its walls and find themselves haunted by the ghosts of characters once played on this stage.” 

And here we come to the crux of the matter: it does seem that all the research is on stage. The band lift up a phone to play John Gelguid’s reading of the opening chorus, and later some narration between scenes; some characters are in t-shirts and jeans, possibly reflecting the influence of West Side Story; the two Fathers are both played by women sporting ill-fitting suits, grey in the swept back hair and the terrible obvious fake stubble used in so many single Girls’ School entries into the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare competitions; The Prince seems to be an 80s version of the ‘Power Woman’ – strict suit, hair pulled back to within an inch of its life and no humour (could we get anymore Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl?).

Each moment where a post-mod reference can be used, it is used. Barely a scene goes by without a modern reference, or humour to undercut scenes. Some of these work a treat (Mollie Fox Fraser’s Nurse shines when she hits the right note; her dental care reference is funny) and some, not so much. The overall result can be twofold: 1) we don’t trust that we can hold the audience’s attention so we keep saying boo; 2) the number of additions can become cloying. I’m all for spinning Shakespeare but sometimes it gets laid on with a shovel, weakening the humour and relevance.

If I remember rightly (which is not a sure thing in any world) I may have said that same kind of thing for another 302 performance which I reviewed in the last year or three. Lori Leigh does a tight job to keep all this under control. Sometimes deftness is lost to pace, but these are university actors and perhaps it’s because they and the care with which they have crafted this show are uniformly good that the ‘weaknesses’ stand out. I’d love to see fewer conventions of theatre demonstrated on stage and more clarity through editing down. (The students can get their $1,366.80 worth in their exegesis surely. Hence my second paragraph.) 

This production has got me asking questions and thinking a lot. Can someone die that quickly in the manner that Juliet uses? Yes, I know it’s fiction, but this fiction requires a trigger warning as par for the course these days. Is this a glamorisation of that particular method if it looks that easy? Why is the gang violence portrayed in a cool, clearly dramaturged narrative (as one observer keenly said, “That sword play had Alan Henry written all over it”) while the domestic violence seems under-worked.

To make myself clear, the sword fight is thrilling and well executed, as is the musical accompaniment; Capulet’s threats of violence against his daughter and wife do not seem to have had the same amount of care in the physical rehearsing, which, while not lessening the message, seems to undervalue it.

While utmost care of the actors in this kind of environment is paramount, the end result seems tentative. Why does Romeo, when obtaining poison, get dramatic music and Juliet, when contemplating her own ‘death’, gets no support in the same way? Why do all the boys get to make the most out of the sexual humour overtly while Juliet or the Nurse are more coy or ‘swoony’.

Perhaps these are endemic to the text; it certainly makes me get around to studying it again. Reading Leigh’s notes afterwards, I’m intrigued by her handling of the text here. I’d also be disheartened if I didn’t come away from this production with a bunch of questions.

If my review has put you off going that was not my intention. A lot of theatre in Wellington won’t get you asking as many questions around violence, consent, joy and love. The students have packed a lot of themselves into this strong, bold and fun show. I’d love to see what this company would do if they had the luxury of working on it full time rather than in amidst their other papers, for what they’ve accomplished is extremely good. 


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