This show marks the end of a twenty year association between Perth and Class Act Theatre, founder and driving force Angelique Malcolm deciding to head eastwards at the end of the year. Class Act has always been notable for making the great Bard’s works accessible to a wider audience and this is no exception.
Here, Will.i.am Shakespeare’s famous tragedy is given a re-imagining with a decidedly hip hop flavour which will no doubt catch the attention of a younger audience. It’s an interesting stylistic choice and one that infuses the play with an energy and playfulness that works surprisingly well in the first act before largely disappearing in the second. As it must as the tragedy unfolds. I’m still undecided about this as I enjoyed the first half so much and missed the unusual flourishes as a more traditional rendering occurs in the second act.
The set is littered with milk crates, a shopping trolley, and refuse as two homeless people watch the action (Malcolm and Stephen Lee, both of whom also play the Sister and, most amusingly, the Nurse respectively). The Capulets and Montagues loiter in the wings. At the rear of the stage is a torn white sheet where the occasional narration of (Perth based lyricist) Ryan ‘Trooth’ Samuels is projected. The upper tear in the sheet will provide the setting for the iconic balcony scene.
What follows is the use of certain passages of text performed as rap with recorded musical support by the aforementioned Trooth and Loftee Beats who are co-musical directors. Lucas Marie adds impressive interludes of breakdancing or 'bboying' as it’s referred to in the program. The cast are attired in modern clothing that reflects the hip hop aesthetic.
The standouts in the early going are Daniel Buckle as Mercutio who adds a real sense of mischief while Jessica Messenger is a feisty Benvolio. Lee initially provides comic relief as the Nurse and his song and dance number was all kinds of brave and funny.
Nick Pages-Oliver plays Romeo with a twinkle in the eye and there is a lot of sly humour here. The well-built Rubeun Yorkshire makes for a menacing Tybalt and the rap-style fight between the two works well. Our Juliet is Maja Liwszyc who was excellent in the last Class Act production I saw (Frames) and excels again here. She conveys strength in opposition to her mother and father’s wishes (Katya Shevtsov and Zane Alexander) while displaying a real sweetness and joy in her love for Romeo. The cast is rounded out by Josh Walker as the rival suitor, Paris.
What adds to the first act working so well is that the actors are never off stage and add spontaneous laughter and catcalls from the wings that enhanced the sense of play. The company had genuine chemistry with ‘in the moment’ interactions. I was really enjoying the humour and fresh take on such well known material. Again, by necessity, the chorus falls silent after the intermission.
I confess I enjoyed Act One more then the second and this is a long play. The fusion of the classical text with rap and hip hop was an interesting one and I thought worked well. Its absence was all the more notable because of its uniqueness. That’s not to say the second half isn’t without its moments with Liwszyc in particular strong.
Directed by Helen Doig, hopefully this production will attract a new generation of young audience members who will become acquainted with one of Shakespeare's masterpieces. I also wish Angelique Malcolm all the best as she braves new frontiers in Melbourne.
Romeo and Juliet is on at the Subiaco Arts Centre until 13 September and then down at the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre 18-19 September.