MIAF: Romeo and Juliet ~ theatre notes

Friday, October 24, 2008

MIAF: Romeo and Juliet

Festival diary #10: Wednesday

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Oskaras Koršunovas. Designed by Jurate Paulekaite, costumes by Jolanta Rimkute, lighting design by Eugenijus Sabaliauskas, choreography Vesta Grabštaite, music composed by Antanas Jasenka. OKT/Vilnius City Theatre @ the Playhouse until October 25.

Freud would have a field day with this remarkable production of Romeo and Juliet. Oskaras Koršunovas, director of Lithuania’s OKT/Vilnius City Theatre, never permits a cigar just to be a cigar. A dizzying range of objects – a length of dough, a ladle, a knife, a tie - become ribald symbols of masculine power. Or, as the case might be, impotence.

However, this cheerful obscenity is far from gratuitous. Here Romeo and Juliet is a satirical and ultimately deadly critique of male violence. A theme that begins as a joke transforms inexorably into a savage attack on the macho culture of vendetta.

This is, of course, a prominent theme in Shakespeare’s play, but seldom drawn out with such theatrical power. Koršunovas’s rambunctious production is not concerned merely with telling the story of star-crossed lovers. Rather, the child lovers are stark symbols of a possible freedom that is murdered by the harsh exigencies of their warring society. It's a theme which has considerable contemporary poignancy.

The play is set in the kitchens of rival pizzerias, with a design cluttered with objects that reminded me of nothing so much as the surreal illustrations of Maurice Sendak. The stage becomes a setting for extreme theatrical and emotional transformations.

It begins with the cast looking blankly out into the audience, as if posing for a photograph. This pose is held so long one cast member falls asleep against another, stirring laughter at its audacity, until at a signal the stage is instantly alive with activity. The play ends with another still pose, only now this is the stillness of death, not life.

So much happens in between that it’s difficult to encompass in a review. This is a production of enormous detail that plays with extremes. The comedy does not relieve the tragedy so much as clash electrically against it, the pathos or passion or sheer uncanny beauty of some scenes heightened by the parodic clowning of others. The dramaturgy is driven by emotional shifts that turn on a knife edge: in a split second, the stage transforms from absolute stillness to frenetic movement, low comedy to high tragedy.

The first two acts are grotesquely playful satire that scrapes against the shy passion of the childish protagonists (one thing we never forget in this production is how young Romeo and Juliet are). There are gorgeously choreographed street scenes that are reminiscent of parts of The Godfather, leavened with a good deal of that lewd comedy. A sense of what is to come occurs during Mercutio's speech to Romeo before his fateful meeting with Juliet: a dramatic shift of lighting transforms the stage into a dreamlike moonscape, hinting of the inhuman workings of fate.

After interval the mood changes irrevocably: the stage becomes a memento mori adorned with skeletons and coffins. The final three acts are stunning, a danse macabre in which Romeo and Juliet’s doomed marriage is played out as nightmare. The comedy becomes a blackly sardonic note against which is played some startling stage images: when Romeo hears of Juliet's death, for example, it comes from a bestial spirit, a boar, in a scene that genuinely touches the uncanny. And the violence is disturbingly real, as in a brutal scene where Juliet's father - heretofore a mildly comic patriarch - demands that she marry Paris, in which the physical force that underlines his familial authority is revealed in an ugly enactment of domestic violence.

Koršunovas's employment of objects is dizzyingly imaginative, richly detailed and constantly surprising. In the first half there is much use of dough, a symbol of life. In the second, the performers use flour, most notably masking their faces white in a spookily effective image of death. When the mourning families gather on stage for the final scene, they sift flour onto the floor, like a constant fall of tears or rain. The final image of the dead young lovers slumping into the huge dough basin - an object which itself has been many things in the course of the play - is one of those indelible theatrical images that sear themselves into memory. It had the chilling finality of corpses being thrown into a pit.

The performances are fantastic, meeting the demanding extremities of the production. The only bother was the sound design, which was frankly naff, and only saved by its abrupt switches from one state to another: at no point did the sound seem integrated with the production, serving rather as sonic wallpaper. Compared to the rest of the production, it seemed surprisingly naive. The other minor irritation was the sometimes puzzlingly ill-spelt surtitles (a feature, as someone remarked last night, of many festival shows). But it's more than worth these glitches to experience Koršunovas’s depth of imagination and masterly command of theatrical image.

A shorter version of this review is in today's Australian.

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