Theatre review: Romeo & Juliet

Review: Theatre

Toy Factory Productions

Drama Centre Theatre / Tuesday

Like the titular star-crossed lovers, whose romance is doomed from the play's prologue, this musical adaptation by Malaysian director Nell Ng has one foot in the grave the moment it begins.

The popular love story of two teenagers from feuding families and their forbidden love over- ambitiously aims to be musical, romance, comedy and tragedy all at once, and ends up with caricatures of every genre instead because it has no idea where to go.

Shakespeare can, in fact, be all of these things. But when the audience is misled into viewing a moment of great tragedy as a comedy, and audible snickers ripple through the crowd, scenes that could have reverberated with warmth instead ring empty and hollow.

Shakespeare specifically denoted songs in several of his works, including Twelfth Night and Measure For Measure; Romeo & Juliet was not one of them.

In setting his verse to song, many of his carefully constructed sentences lose that crisp rhythm, and those sharp consonants are smoothed over into something vague and benign.

When Romeo (Benjamin Kheng) is gazing at Juliet (Ethel Yap), who is perched so beautifully on her balcony, his impassioned cry of "But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" - as quick as an intake of breath - is drawn out into a melodramatic pop ballad that could have had 10 Romeos fall for 10 Juliets in the meantime.

Throughout the production, these alarmingly incongruous songs interrupt the most climactic scenes with terrible abruptness - meaning that all the gravitas of a death or a major plot pivot evaporates immediately.

I suspect that composer Elaine Chan, usually so reliable and effervescent, was given a brief for what could have been an entire different production.

Shakespeare's text is either rendered unintelligible beneath all the competing harmonies, or the action might pause entirely while a song unfolds, leaving huge stretches of stasis to bog down the production even further.

Some of the juxtapositions of song and text are also troubling. An example: Friar Lawrence (Andrew Mowatt) is reduced unfairly to a two-dimensional jester figure, and as he cautions the young couple against tumbling headlong into marriage, Romeo and Juliet belt out a ridiculously cheerful and saccharine duet, drowning out these crucial words, words that form the crux of the play: "These violent delights have violent ends. And in their triumph die, like fire and powder. Which, as they kiss, consume."

One of the most bizarre scenes had Mercutio (Timothy Wan) rapping in a song so gimmicky and distracting I could not pay attention to a single thing he said. Was this some over-calculated attempt at coolness or being hip?

The thing about being suave, which the character of Mercutio usually exudes, is that it should feel effortless - and not come across as trying too hard.

But what amplifies the weaknesses of this production is the fact that there is absolutely no subtlety or restraint in both word and action.

Every emotion, it seems, must be played to the hilt; there is no middle ground. If someone is upset, that person flails about, his voice trembles and breaks in huge juddering sobs, he shudders or pounds the floor in overwrought despair.

This pervades the music as well. For instance, any mention of "lightning" in songs means that a crack of lightning must somehow accompany it as a sound effect that more than painfully states the obvious.

While I deeply commend the bold step Toy Factory takes in promoting young actors on stage, an ensemble comprising many actors of roughly the same age and/or demographic means that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish an older role from a younger one; parent characters sometimes behave younger than their onstage children, which is puzzling.

Many of the ensemble cast also suffer from poor diction, swallowing words and tripping over sentences along the way. It is unfortunate that some of the most seasoned performers on stage, usually a delight to watch, are reduced to playing to the peanut gallery.

The saving graces of this production are the leads Kheng and Yap as Romeo and Juliet. While often subject to dubious direction, they possess a sweet earnestness and gentle chemistry that transcend the murky swamp they are trapped in, and Shakespeare's text regains its clarity when they speak it. While not always compelling, they were definitely watchable.

There are many ways of giving Shakespeare, with all his timeless magic, a contemporary twist. With it comes a respect for the text and its ability to move audience members as it is, without the need to overwhelm it entirely with thrills and frills - or to only deconstruct it halfway, in aimless purgatory between comedy and tragedy.

The text also does not need to be dumbed down for audience members. There should be respect for the viewers as well, that they do not need to be hit over the head with buckets of symbolism or exaggerated gestures to understand exactly what the play is about.

Sadly, the tale of Romeo & Juliet could almost be a metaphor for this production of it: Almost everyone, this reviewer included, ends up dead through a series of unfortunate events.


Where: Drama Centre Theatre

When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 3.30 and 8pm; Sunday, 3.30pm

Admission: $49 to $69 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to