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R + J
For a man in the midst of the final weeks of rehearsal for a national theatre production, of Romeo and Juliet no less, Bell Shakespeare's new Artistic Director Peter Evans sounds awfully relaxed - or perhaps excited is a more appropriate word to use. Having taken the reigns from company founder John Bell at the start of 2016, you’d expect some trepidation in relation to his first production for the season and, more holistically, the beginning of a new era for the company. Yet Evans is nothing but enthusiastic about the upcoming performance and his plans for the rest of the year. Here, he chats to RUSSH about Baz Lurhmann, Zeffirelli, and Shakespeare’s most romantic text.
What made you choose Romeo and Juliet as the opening performance of the season?
Well, a whole bunch of things happened ... About ten years ago I was speaking to people I worked with who were in their early-to-mid 20s, and they were all saying ‘well if you’re our generation you’ve never seen period costumed Shakespeares, all the Shakespeares are contemporary’. And I thought, that’s really interesting, because when I was growing up there were period costume Shakespeares and they weren’t very good - they were kind of very historically restrained and you felt like you were in some kind of lesson or some kind of museum. And that’s not how they should be; they should be really sexy and vibrant. So I started to think about if I did do a period Shakespeare, which I've never done before, what play would I do? And it felt to me that Romeo and Juliet would be one of the really interesting ones to do.
My association with the company is over many years, and I’ve been working in tandem with John Bell for the last five years. When it came time as sole Artistic Director I thought it would be really good to do something that was early Shakespeare … Romeo and Juliet hadn’t been on my list. When I was writing an article about Shakespeare I remembered how important the [Franco] Zeffirelli [Romeo and Juliet] film was for me when I was growing up in the 80s. And then of course the Baz Lurhmann one, which is wonderful in kind of the opposite way …
Let's talk about the costumes - the period setting will be a bit of a departure from the jeans and T-shirt approach we've come to expect from Bell Shakespeare ...
I think everybody loves the craftsmanship, and the people who are making these costumes [have sourced] the fabrics from India and Germany and from all round the world. I think there’s something about that skill and detail that’s just really thrilling. And then my goal is to make that not make the play stuffy or inhibited, to in fact allow these costumes to make the performances more vibrant.
Back to a comment you made earlier about Baz Lurhmann - do you have a favourite previous version of Romeo and Juliet?
Well, the Zeffirelli was definitely the one for me. I thought the film was really beautiful and those two leads were really amazing. I was in my 20s by the time the Baz Lurhmann [film] came out, and I think I appreciated that in a different way. But I think when I was a teenager there was something about the kind of complete immersion in a period Italy and the hot sun and the boys and the camaraderie and the violence that comes out of the play that I found really romantic in the Zeffirelli. I've seen some not-bad stage productions but none of them have stood out that really kind of stayed with me. It’s more been about those films I think.
Let’s talk more about the characters. Who will be playing Romeo and Juliet in your production? What do they bring to the characters?
Alex Williams is playing Romeo ... I met him a year and a half ago when he was auditioning for something and he was really keen to get back and do some theatre. Interestingly, he was auditioning for a different play at the time, and said to me 'I’d really love to play Romeo one day', so I remembered that for when we decided to go ahead with it. He’s got great emotional reserves. He’s quite hard, Romeo, it's quite a tricky part. Sometimes he [Romeo] can be a bit wet because of his emotional reserves, but Alex is able to kind of keep a kind of masculinity in this young man.
Kelly Paterniti is playing Juliet and she’s really smart. You need to be really smart to take on Juliet, it’s a really bright character and you need to be able to match that. She also has amazing emotional reserves, particularly [when] in the second half Juliet is just distraught and goes from kind of one tragedy to the next, and she has to be able to articulate that. The thing about Shakespeare is that it’s not just about watching it, you have to be able to talk us through what she’s going through which is technically really difficult, but also emotionally draining.
What does Bell Shakespeare have in store for the rest of 2016?
We’re doing a collaboration with the Griffin Theatre ... Lee Lewis is working as the director, and we’re doing a new Australian translation of a Molière play, it’s called Les Femmes Savantes but our English title is The Literati. And then I go back into rehearsals; I’m doing a production of Othello. It’s a great play – so that was the idea to do Romeo and Juliet from the early part of Shakespeare’s career and then Othello, which is from the later part of his career ... We’re doing 30 venues all over the country. We do Melbourne, Perth, lots of regional venues, and then we end up back at the Opera House in November, December.
Romeo and Juliet premiers Saturday February 20 at the Sydney Opera House.