Romeo & Juliet: WAAPA Kicks Off 2019 With Star-Crossed Lovers

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'Romeo & Juliet' 'Romeo & Juliet'

Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) opens up the year with a classic tale by a classic storyteller.

Shakespeare's 'Romeo & Juliet' will come to life with direction by British Guest Artist Michael Jenn, who is in Perth as part of WAAPA's Visiting Artists programme.

With 40 years of experience, Michael is keen to bring his vision to the stage.

Here, he answers some questions about the production.

This is such a classic story. What made you want to bring it to the WA stage?
I think it’s a wonderful play and despite being an early work of Shakespeare’s, the writing is rich and complex. Most people who know 'Romeo & Juliet' think of the balcony scene and the tragic ending but there’s so much more in it, including a surprising amount of comedy. Shakespeare was brilliant at putting rip-roaring comedy right up against profound tragedy and he does this in 'Romeo & Juliet', with the Nurse, the musicians and many comic servants. He knew how to relieve the tension for his audiences before building it up again. He gives us time to breathe and enjoy a joke before continuing the tragic story. How many writers can do that? It’s a play that we feel is done often, but more recently in the UK, where I’m from, it’s rather gone out of fashion, perhaps because it’s suffered from sentimental, one-note productions. I wanted to bring the play’s rich mix of tragedy, comedy, farce, intrigue, revenge, violence and sensuality to WA as I think here you have a greater ability to view Shakespeare’s plays with an open mind, a fresh look without the English cultural inheritance of 'The Great Bard' (I hate that expression!) that often bedevils English productions. He’s often treated with too much respect in England, as if he’s a museum piece to be protected and preserved in aspic, whereas to me, he’s one of our greatest living playwrights.

What's your favourite thing about 'Romeo & Juliet’?
The whole thing. A young boy and girl who fall completely and helplessly in love with each other, (we all remember that from our teenage years, don’t we?); the gang-like feud between the two families, the Montagues and Capulets – very relevant for today – (there have been a record number of deaths in London this year from rival gang stabbings); the all-too-believable human error of a well-meaning priest; the desperate attempts of Romeo and Juliet to be together; their love, passion and loyalty for each other; the fired up, youthful ‘all-or-nothing’ life force of the other youngsters in the play; the brilliant comedy from the Nurse, musicians and servants; the rich language; the heartbreaking tragedy that’s brought about by chance events and miscalculation – and the fact that the whole story takes place over just four days.

You're bringing nearly 40 years worth of experience to WAAPA and you're doing it as part of the Visiting Artists programme. What does it mean to you to be directing WAAPA students?
I’m lucky enough to have directed five other productions at WAAPA before this one and the thing that always strikes me is how professional and dedicated the students are: the actors, stage management and crew. They are industrious, focused, hardworking, imaginative – and they turn up on time. I’ve worked with professional companies in the UK that have less professionalism than the students at WAAPA. The Academy’s reputation is so high, and the highly sought after, limited places for all the courses so oversubscribed, that I sense the students are so thrilled to be there they don't want to waste a second of the three-year course. And why would they? WAAPA’s courses are among the very best anywhere in the world. It’s also great to be working with WAAPA’s top flight teachers and coaches, who I learn a lot from, and to be supported by the Minderoo Foundation, without whom my visit to WAAPA would not be possible.

You've worked on Shakespeare before. What do you admire about his writing?
That 403 years after his death, his plays are still as brilliant and exciting as ever. There are many superb modern playwrights all over the world but I think Shakespeare’s plays are still some of the best scripts we have. How many of today’s playwrights will still be as popular in 400 years time? Shakespeare had the ability to look deep into the human soul and put its deepest thoughts, fears and desires on the page and the stage. He was a brilliant dramatist, and it's worth remembering that he gave up being a poet to become a playwright. He was also an actor, a director and a producer, so he knew the theatre business inside out. He knew what an audience would enjoy and what would bore them, what would excite and terrify them. His language is thrilling to read, but more importantly to speak and act. He never intended his plays just to be read, they were absolutely for performance and I find his rich, complex and often troubled characters fascinating and so rewarding to work with. He also wrote great parts for women, though of course they would have been played by boys in his time.

Romeo & Juliet 20191

What kinds of contemporary themes do you think this story still holds today?
As above, the uncompromising passions of youth, the brutal and lethal violence that can erupt from longstanding feuds between rival gangs or families, the undeniable force of unconditional love and desire, and the unbearable pain and grief of premature death and separation.

And building on that, why do you think it's still so popular after all these years?
Precisely because of the play's insightful and forensic examination of all these themes and how obsessive, all-consuming love can be overwhelmingly thrilling and at the same time lead us into the depths of despair. Shakespeare knew exactly how human beings tick; I wonder if he was also a psychologist?

Did you have any particular things you wanted to achieve going into the directing of this?
As with all plays, and especially Shakespeare, to help an audience forget that these words have ever been written down. I think a big part of an actor’s and director’s job is to make an audience believe whatever words are been spoken on stage have been born in the actor’s imagination a split second before she or he utters them. That’s life, that’s we all do every day, if we are blessed with the gift of speech. Also, I hope the audiences will feel they are seeing the play for the first time – not because we are doing anything radial or weird with it, we're not, but because, if we get it right, it should feel like a play that was written yesterday or never written down at all. Above all, I hope audiences will enjoy it and be surprised at how much comedy Shakespeare put into his tragedies.

How would you like audiences to feel once they've seen your direction of 'Romeo & Juliet' at WAAPA?
I hope they’ll feel surprised, entertained, enriched, challenged, amused and glad that they came to see the play. I also hope they’ll feel I’ve helped the students perform to the very best of their abilities and that these young talents will be worth watching again and again as they join the professional ranks later this year. Perhaps, above all, I hope our audiences will feel they’ve seen a fresh take on 'Romeo & Juliet' and have plenty to talk about.

'Romeo & Juliet' plays Studio Underground at State Theatre Centre from 15-21 March.

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