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ROMEO AND JULIET (article first published : 2004-05-21)

For a number of years, the Drama and Performance Studies programme at the University of Natal, Durban, in association with First National Bank, has presented the FNB Shakespeare Festival. These have included A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2001), The Comedy of Errors (2002) and Much Ado About Nothing (2003).

The production chosen for 2004 is Shakespeare’s well-known love story, Romeo and Juliet. Directed by Mervyn McMurtry and Tamar Meskin, it features performers from Wentworth who have been working with the cast, sharing their experiences and stories of gang rivalry. For those unfamiliar with the Bard’s story, Romeo and Juliet deals with the enmity between two households in Verona, a scenario played out to great effect in Leonard Bernstein’s musical based on the play, West Side Story.

To quote the directors’ programme notes, the FNB Shakespeare Festival’s aim is to “present productions that are as exuberantly bold, as culturally diverse, and as engagingly relevant as William Shakespeare’s own theatre was some four hundred years ago.” This means crossing cultural borders, time frames and language. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For me, this Romeo and Juliet embraces some very fine acting and mature attention to the text which occasionally gets diluted through unnecessary attention-getters and humourous “business”.

For the first part of the programme, audiences could have been forgiven for thinking that the University’s drama department was going the musical route. There was much focus on breakdance – which was excellent – in the beginning, followed by an aerobics class and a waltz scene at the Capulet’s party which eventually morphed into a Bhangra Bash. Brilliant idea but it was over-extended. However, I particularly liked Nj Sithole as the way over-the-top DJ.

In the second half, things settled down a bit and the story was allowed to take its course as the two “star cross’d lovers” travelled inexorably towards their tragic end. I was most impressed with Janna Ramos-Violante (Juliet) and Marc Kay (Romeo). What Janna lacked in youthful naiivete and vulnerability (Juliet has only just entered her teens, after all), she made up for with dramatic impact, particularly in the scene where Juliet hears of Tybalt’s death. Marc Kay has a compelling stage presence and good control of his voice but he does tend to “talk” to the ground!

Despite suffering from throat problems, Verne Rowin Munsamy was a powerful Capulet and his scenes were focused and consistent. I did have a problem with the logic of making Capulet such an overtly abusive father and husband. This conflicts with his tolerance of Romeo at his party and his spontaneous act of reconciliation at the end. However, it certainly made for dramatic effect.

Other performers who impressed were Libby Allen (Nurse), Gareth Pretorius (Mercutio), Adam Doré (Benvolio) and Sean de Klerk (Friar Laurence).

I am delighted to say that the students have worked hard at their voice projection technique and, despite the demands that this venue imposes on the voice, I could hear just about every word that was uttered. The fight scenes are excellent, particularly the one between Romeo and Tybalt.

I would urge theatre-goers to take in this production for its own vigorous and passionate style – they’ll also get to see a number of performers who will definitely make their mark on the theatre scene in the future.

Performances until May 29 nightly except Monday at 18h00. The Pieter Scholtz Open Air Theatre is situated on the University of KZN’s, Durban campus. Bring a picnic and a blanket – it gets chilly later in the evening – and a cash bar is available. Bookings or information from Claudette Wagner on 031 260-3134 (08h30-13h00 weekdays), fax 031 260 1410 or e-mail wagnerc1@nu.ac.za – Caroline Smart




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