Read Artistic Director Peter Evans' program note from the 2023 production of Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet is about a community. The community of Verona and more specifically those around the Capulet family. The tearing of a society is a central action in both the tragedies and the comedies of Shakespeare. But tragedy tends to end in death, and comedy in marriage. Romeo and Juliet is unusual in that it combines both genres. The wedding takes place by half time. Then we prepare for the death. It is unlike most of the other tragedies of Shakespeare in that it doesn’t centre on one figure. It arguably isn’t even entirely centred on the couple but rather the society around them. Fascinatingly most of the other characters in the play do not know what play they are in. It is one of the many tragedies within this remarkable play that Mercutio, Paris and Tybalt all die not knowing Romeo and Juliet are married. And the parents are clueless until the death of our lovers.
This play is so famous it can be hard to see it clearly. It is, of course, about love. But more specifically it is concerned with desire. Arguably this encroaches on lust. The lovers are full of lust, and this leads to impatience, perhaps an equally important theme in the play. Listen out for how many times characters advise patience, counsel themselves and others to pause only to then race headlong into the next action. All the characters are guilty of careless rushing, and Shakespeare weaves this into all aspects of the play. He frames the narrative inside a strict timeframe. Just four days. This is a vastly shorter period than the source material from which Shakespeare took the story of Romeo and Juliet. And like all Shakespeare plays this creates pressure. And from pressure comes actions and behaviours that create drama and, in this case, tragedy.
The root of the tragedy is the ancient feud that plagues this society. A feud taken up by the young people that turns the play from romantic comedy to romantic tragedy. However, Shakespeare treats all the characters with good faith. Many of the actions are taken with a view to the common good. As Romeo says of his intervention in the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt:
I thought all for the best.
But through impatience, lust, revenge, love, passion, violence, and a series of simple accidents, Shakespeare constructs one of the greatest tragedies ever written.
I have cast an ensemble of actors where age and gender are not as important as the spirit of the actors and how they meet the characters. We know we are watching a play. An old play that is not realism but is lyrical; it has rhyming couplets and is so famous it is impossible to separate from our own lives. Like this play would have been presented in Shakespeare’s time, our production is contemporary, but we rejoice in the tropes of the play: poison, potions, swords, and masks.
Our audience in Melbourne has for the best part of 10 years been seeing us at the Fairfax Studio in the Arts Centre. The space is semi-circular and wonderful for Shakespeare. Now our Sydney audience is to have a similar experience. Romeo and Juliet marks the beginning of our journey in The Neilson Nutshell. With the audience on three sides, we are in a space like the theatres Shakespeare wrote for. He wrote for bare stages surrounded by audience in theatres called The Theatre, The Curtain, The Rose, and The Globe. Then later in his career for the indoor, intimate space of The Blackfriars, perhaps very similar to The Nutshell.
We have named our new space after a line from Hamlet.
I could be bounded in a nutshell
and count myself a king of infinite space.
A place of infinite possibility. A space to celebrate word music. And as the prologue to Henry V [perhaps the play with which Shakespeare opened The Globe] says, we make work that will:
On your imaginary forces work.
This space is a place to see much-loved plays anew. And in the future to see lesser-known plays for the first time. You are seeing Romeo and Juliet from a new angle. You can see your fellow auditors. We share in this remarkable play, this extraordinary poetry, and the saddest of sad tales.