Romeo and Juliet take to the stage under Graeme Murphy's artistic eye
LOOKING out over the Pacific Ocean at his beachside home in Sydney's Coogee a few years ago, Graeme Murphy put on a recording of Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and sat at a table with pen and paper.
As the music unfurled he frenetically scratched out his vision for an ambitious new ballet; almost two hours later, he put down the pen, exhausted.
In front of him was a skeletal blueprint. "I let the music tell me a story, and I listened to what that story was," Murphy says. "Out from that, all the steps had to grow, all the sets, all the costumes. It's like a foundation for a house. And then you invite all the designers, and the plumbers and all the electricians in, and the building begins."
This month Murphy unveils the result. Costing about $1.2 million to stage, his Romeo and Juliet is one of the most significant new works to be commissioned by the Australian Ballet in years, and certainly one of the most anticipated since Murphy's all-conquering Swan Lake in 2002.
The carpenters, plumbers and stonemasons have well and truly been called in. A 25-strong production crew of designers, planners, painters, construction workers and propmakers have been hammering away under a tight deadline to give physical shape to the ballet, which includes a complex set by Gerard Manion, a longtime collaborator with Murphy from the days when the latter was artistic director of Sydney Dance Company. Twenty costumiers are sewing, hand beading and bespoke dyeing more than 200 costumes by fashion designer Akira Isogawa.
The story of the star-crossed lovers was told in dance as early as 1785 and has been tackled by choreographers as diverse as Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton, John Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan, Angelin Preljocaj and Mark Morris. But perhaps most influential was the landmark Leonid Lavrovsky-Prokofiev production in 1940.
Prokofiev's is the best known and loved music written for the ballet despite being, in the words of Princeton music professor Simon Morrison, a mangled, "reorganised, torn-up work". It had one of the most difficult and highly politicised creative journeys imaginable.
Working with the dramatist Sergei Radlov, Prokofiev wrote the score in 1935 for the Bolshoi but the work fell foul of Stalin's cultural bureaucrats (it featured a controversial happy ending, reportedly stemming from Prokofiev's Christian Science beliefs, as well as his pragmatic view that "living people can dance, the dying cannot").
Under duress Prokofiev significantly revised the score and orchestration, and this more "traditionalised", Stalin-approved version, with its conventional tragic ending was finally presented at the Kirov (which has reverted to its earlier name the Mariinsky) in 1940, with choreography by Lavrovsky. Galina Ulanova, still famed for her interpretation of Juliet, reportedly quipped at the after-party that "For never was a story of more woe/ Than Prokofiev's music for Romeo".
Murphy, who describes the ballet as "one of those terrifying works that everyone wants a stab at", says he put his hat in the ring, choreographically speaking, because of Prokofiev. "He's somehow captured the incredible joy of first love." The best works of Murphy's career have all been inspired by ideas of "love, the need to be loved, the act of not being loved and the consequences".
Murphy has replaced the geographic specificity of Verona with a more universal, timeless, space representing, as AB artistic director David McAllister says, "every culture, be they Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, whatever". It's a risky venture, the choreographer says candidly. "I feel the pressure, certainly. But I also feel my job is to exorcise the ghost of two monsters, two ghosts, really. One is the ghost of Cranko, but the biggest one is the ghost of Shakespeare."
THE story of Juliet and her Romeo is rarely absent from the scene in one form or another, including, earlier this year, the Disney children's film Gnomeo and Juliet. In July the Sydney Symphony played highlights from Prokofiev's score and Brisbane's Expressions Dance Company premiered R & J, which presented three takes on the theme. EDC artistic director Natalie Weir is a self-described "old romantic" who believes flawed humans and big emotions "make for great dance".
Bell Shakespeare has just concluded the Melbourne season of its new 90-minute version for school students and heads to the Brisbane Festival this month. Internationally, National Ballet of Canada has commissioned hot-shot Alexei Ratmansky to make a new version to mark the company's 60th anniversary; a Yiddish film featuring a Hasidic Romeo and Juliet was a hit at this year's Berlin Jewish Film Festival; and American cartoon legend Stan Lee's company is reportedly at work on a graphic novel with the young lovers reinvented as two groups of superhuman soldiers and cyborgs battling it out in a futuristic Verona.
In the more than 400 years since the tale first emerged it has spawned innumerable reinventions. We've seen its teenage protagonists re-imagined as gangsters and vampires, bored suburban youngsters and rock stars. Verona has variously been transplanted to the red stretches of outback Queensland, the Occupied Territories, post-apartheid South Africa, the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt, fascist Italy, Thatcherite England and Cold War America.
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in about 1595 (the first known publication of the play was in Shakespeare's First Quarto in 1597), and took his plot from Arthur Brooke's long poem of 1562, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, itself a refashioning of existing material.
Since then it has inspired countless works of art: the list includes operas by Charles Gounod (Romeo et Juliette) and Vincenzo Bellini (I Capuleti e i Montecchi); Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture; Leonard Bernstein's 1957 musical West Side Story (a "very hard act to follow" says Murphy); Franco Zeffirelli's lushly sensual 1968 film and Baz Luhrmann's high-octane 1996 version featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
The story has popped up across the unlikeliest of mediums and genres: sci-fi, manga, romance novels, musicals, cartoons, anime, Chinese opera, rap, hip hop, teen literature and pop music. Homage has been paid by musicians as various as Lou Reed, Dire Straits, Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. It was even retold as a series of tweets by the Royal Shakespeare Company last year. Film scholar Douglas Brode claims it's the most filmed play of all time.
A cultural behemoth by any measure -- Bell Shakespeare artistic director John Bell says dryly that, "like the Mona Lisa, it's famous for being famous" -- the story was a hit from the outset, as evident in the title page of the First Quarto in 1597 which said "it hath been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely".
In scholar Harold Bloom's words, Shakespeare, in this tale, "invented the formula that the sexual becomes the erotic when crossed by the shadow of death".
There are many classical tales of tragic love -- Hero and Leander, Pyramus and Thisbe, Abelard and Heloise -- but this work holds primary cultural sway. Not that all critics are convinced as to its literary merits. Bloom may have believed it is "unmatched . . . as a vision of uncompromising mutual love that perishes of its own idealism and intensity", but diarist Samuel Pepys, one of the earliest known critics, wrote irascibly in 1662 that "it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life". Hilton Als, writing in The New Yorker last year, spoke of its "almost cheesy melodrama", and its "relentlessly pop handling of sex, rebellion and adolescent desire".
Yet its resonant dichotomies endure: love vs hate, light vs dark, youth vs age, freedom vs restriction, fate vs determinism. Love, hate, and intergenerational conflict cross cultural, racial and geographical boundaries, says Queensland Theatre Company's artistic director Wesley Enoch: "They say there are only six or seven stories in the world, and this is one of them." Murphy agrees: the story endures "because it goes beyond literature, and into the realm of mythology".
This thematic richness is wrapped in a lusty package with plenty of bawdy humour leavening the tragedy (director Damien Ryan calls the play "gloriously and filthily funny"). As director Nigel Jamieson quips: "It's a much easier sell than Hamlet, isn't it? Hamlet is such a complicated, neurotic case."
Generations of young audiences are drawn to it because its preoccupations -- love, tyrannical parents, intergenerational clashes, violence, friendship and feuds -- dovetail neatly with their own, says Ryan, who is directing Bell Shakespeare's schools production, which sets the action in a drought-stricken Italian town in the 1950s and canvasses issues of youth alienation and the claustrophobia of small-town living. The "boy meets girl, boy loses girl" theme easily accommodates the wider concerns of the young of the day, whatever they are.
It is an idealised, impassioned depiction of first love, says Carina Garland, a PhD candidate and tutor in the gender and cultural studies department at the University of Sydney. "It's about the most perfect love, which never becomes banal or everyday or stale. I think the fact that at no point do we encounter the often boring or disappointing realities of relationships is part of what makes Romeo and Juliet so compelling.
"Sometimes we want to believe that it's possible to be so deeply in love with someone that that's all that matters: not our families, our individual lives or anything else."
Also appealing to the young is its anti-authority narrative. It's the archetypal portrayal of the "ongoing war of growing up between parents and children", as Ryan sees it. Add to that the extreme youth of the protagonists, an unusually empowered heroine, and a frank, robust exploration of youth sexuality, says Sydney University academic Kate Flaherty, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of English.
"In almost any context the extreme youth of the characters is a subject for fascination and no amount of delving back into history normalises that. The median age for marriage in the period when Shakespeare wrote the play was much the same as it is now but Shakespeare put these characters not in early adulthood (like most of his romantic matches) but at the very rim of childhood.
"There's nothing casual in Juliet's sexual economy, nothing held in reserve. She's in for life, or death," says Flaherty.
Interestingly, while Bell feels the written text has overpowering dramatic force ("it really bowls along, with love scenes and sword fights and balls, it's got every possible ingredient for a great, spectacular piece of theatre"), it hasn't necessarily translated into great theatrical productions. The most accomplished classical actors have tackled it, but, says Bell: "It's a very difficult play to bring off. It's such a wonderful play, yet extremely difficult to cast, specially finding actors of the right age or who look the right age."
The two young, photogenic leads in the company's current production certainly fit the bill. Juliet will be played by young rising star Andrea Demetriades, 28, who has recently come to wider attention playing lawyer Lina Badir in the ABC's new legal drama Crownies. The Perth-born actress and dancer, who graduated from NIDA in 2006, has some solid mainstage runs on the board when it comes to playing feisty Shakespearean heroines, having played Marina in Pericles and Viola in Twelfth Night for Bell Shakespeare (the latter earned her nominations for best actress in last year's Green Room awards).
Her Romeo, South-African born, Sydney-based actor Michael Sheasby, is just 22. He graduated from NIDA last year and played Lysander and Romeo while at drama college.
Ryan says that unlike in other works, the language in Romeo and Juliet remains "powerfully contemporary . . . You feel that in an audience of young people, up to 700 in the theatre at once at times, that the most soaring moments of exquisite text brought the greatest silence. Kids today are as open to beauty and imagery and romance and poetry as anyone, perhaps more so. I think it is a myth that it doesn't interest them."
Flaherty also notes: "In so many plays from Shakespeare's period and in so many products of modern media, women remain plot enablers. But in Shakespeare's plays, women want things, change things, and size it up all with scorchingly powerful language."
The mass media has also played its part. "In a cyclic way, successful performance breeds popularity just as much as popularity prompts new productions. It wasn't a work of universal significance for my generation until Baz Luhrmann's film came along [now 35, Flaherty was 20 when it came out] and made it stick as a subject for admiration or controversy. I suspect that Zeffirelli's gorgeous 1968 film did the same for the earlier generation and before that Bernstein and Sondheim's 1957 Broadway adaptation West Side Story and its 1961 film spin-off."
Bell cites the play's "astonishing" language, plot twists, richly realised characters, hectic pace, and the imaginatively compressed timescale. Many works have canvassed similar themes, but have not endured because they lack "the force Shakespeare gives those themes through his particular use of dramatic language", Flaherty says.
"It's not the tale, it's how it's told. We're told the ending at the beginning but the question remains of how we're going to get there . . . The quicksilver quality of the plot conveyed in vivid acts of speech compels us afresh into the particularities of the drama despite the fact that we know its general direction and its themes. It's probably this vitality and volatility that has made it so popular for adaptation in different forms. I suspect that each form has its own agenda; manga comics tapping potentialities different to opera. The variegated tenor and dynamism of the original play spawns new creations and this is, in an extended sense, part of the play's capacity to generate new experience. My thought is that even ballet and classical music that don't use language explicitly still draw their rhythms from it."
McAllister points out the relative ease of adaptability to a non-verbal medium. "It's about the competing emotions of love and hate, and I think ballet does that very well. You have to have fairly simple stories to tell in dance, and this is just the perfect one: two families who hate each other, and a couple who fall in love. I just saw the Bell Shakespeare production of Much Ado About Nothing, and the great joy of that was that it was so complex, but you could never present that as a dance work because you would get lost halfway through."
The ending, with its double death, is "the ultimate gesture of love and lust. You're at the last point; there's nothing more to do. Dying on stage is one of the most gratifying things you can do as a dancer," says McAllister, who danced Romeo many times but was also a noted Mercutio when performing with the AB; that character's death impels much of the tragedy.
Flaherty says the play "is clearly a useful vehicle for articulating a myriad of moral and social concerns.
"Does it really appeal to indigenous communities in Arnhem Land, urban New Yorkers, and Indian villagers alike? I think what appeals to each of these groups is probably quite different. The perceived breadth of relevance is explained by the imaginative word wealth of the play given particular form and pressure through performance and adaptation in those contexts.
"One group might make use of the intergenerational conflict as a way of understanding itself while another might draw deeply on possibilities the play offers for expressing factional or even ethnic rivalry. One production might find the truest note in the forbidden nature of Romeo and Juliet's love while another might flag up their wholehearted rush towards marriage and their sacred regard for that institution."
Bell Shakespeare's 2006 version was deliberately crafted with an eye to the Cronulla riots because "they seemed a good indication of mindless intolerance and violence springing out of nothing other than a longstanding grudge", says Bell.
The play's focus on tribalism, clan politics, and kinship ties lends itself particularly well to indigenous storytelling and concerns, says Enoch, who directed a version for Bell Shakespeare in 1999, around the same time another version was aired by indigenous theatre group Kooemba Jdarra (of which Enoch is a former artistic director). Other indigenous-flavoured versions include Wayne Blair's 2008 version for Sydney Theatre Company (where "polyglot tribes of Montagues and Capulets go at each other with bits of metal wrenched off car wrecks" as a critic put it), while in 2007 Bell Shakespeare helped stage an indigenous community show inspired by the tale Lungkku and the Rose in Tennant Creek.
Many of the indigenous retellings tap into issues of reconciliation, prejudice and identity. Enoch says: "A lot of indigenous performers and artists come from mixed families, so it's a tale that becomes one of our stories. My mum's white, my dad is Aboriginal, [actress] Deb Mailman's mum is Maori and her dad is Aboriginal, and so on. So there's this interclan, intergenerational thing that is very familiar to us and is always in our narratives and storytelling."
The play's power also lies in the way it taps into the transmission of virulent social values, such as racism, from one generation into another, he says.
Jamieson last year used Romeo and Juliet -- or more accurately, West Side Story -- as a springboard for Wrong Skin, starring the Chooky Dancers. It explored among things, the impact of Western culture on remote indigenous communities, the intricacies of clan and skin politics in Yolgnu culture, and the forbidden love between two moieties. Jamieson agrees the tale was perfect as a cultural reference point. The Yolgnu people, after all, live in a highly codified society "which is very, very proscriptive as to who you can and cannot talk to or marry".
Interestingly, Jamieson feels Romeo and Juliet is actually more resonant for tribal or traditional societies today with their strict marriage laws and social codes, than it is for Western societies, where individual freedom to love reigns. Perhaps, he says, that explains the enduring global appeal.