Romeo & Juliet at Pop-up Globe, 13 December 2019: Theatre Review

Pop-up Globe opened its fifth and final Auckland season with a glittering red-carpet event, followed by an eye-watering, jaw-dropping, utterly dazzling performance of Shakespeare’s much-loved tragedy, Romeo & Juliet.

Entering the Pop-up Globe grounds, one is whisked into another time and place, passing through twinkling lights to an enchanted garden where one might meet any number of fascinating people, possibly a prince or princess and fall in love at first sight. Or not. One might simply enjoy a quiet drink or lively conversation with friends.

The atmosphere is unbroken when one enters the theatre itself, a painstaking recreation of Shakespeare’s second Globe. (The first caught fire during a performance of King Henry the VIII in 1613 and burned to the ground! Fortunately, there were no fatalities.) It is also a marvel of contemporary engineering – constructed of exposed scaffolding in the stalls, with an exact replica of the original’s stage.

Once in our seats, the buzz racing through the audience was palpable – those of us in the galleries chattering, browsing our (rather expensive) programmes and sipping wine. The groundlings, those standing on the floor – students, artists and other riff-raff, making rather a lot of noise, singing, dancing and other loutish behaviour, while a jazz band plays from the highest balcony atop the stage.

It all came to a hush when Dr Miles Gregory, creator and founder of Pop-up Globe took the stage. In a (rather lengthy) speech, he recounted the creation of this marvellous theatre, inspired by his young daughter’s pop-up book – all the people involved in bringing it to life (the list of credits rivals a George Lucas blockbuster) – how it has grown across Australasia, staging over 1200 shows to over 700,000 theatre-goers. And how, after this final Auckland season, he is planning to bring Pop-up globe to the rest of the world.

But down to business… There’s a feud raging between the Capulets and the Montagues and the streets of Verona are running with blood. Swords clang, daggers flash, throats are cut, blood spatters everywhere (including on the punters standing by the stage). The body count mounts – and Verona’s Prince (Renee Lyons) has had enough, declaring anyone instigating further violence will be put to death.

We meet young Romeo (Darcy Kent), a rather pathetic youth, sobbing mournfully over his unrequited love for the Lady Rosaline, who will have nothing to do with him. His friends Mercutio (Rutene Spooner) and Swing (Flynn Mehlhopt) tease and cajole and then concoct a scheme to crash a Capulet costume party that Rosaline will be attending, where he can woo her.

Meanwhile, the Capulets have decided to introduce their petulant, 13-year-old daughter Juliet (Jess Hong) to her future husband, the wealthy, handsome Paris (Theo David), at the party. Lord Capulet (Greg Johnson) does ponder the wisdom of marrying her off so young – Juliet still plays with dolls – but it seems a perfect match.

The party is a sparkling affair as bubbles float through the entire globe – music, dancing, wit. Romeo, dressed as a giant banana with a Mercutio-drawn penis adorning his right cheek, spies Juliet and all thoughts of Rosaline leave his head. She is so beautiful he must have her. And she, sweetly innocent, is rapt at his attentions. But alas, Romeo and his friends are exposed by Juliet’s cousin, the hot-headed Tybalt (Alexander Holloway) and thrown out of the party, tearing the love-struck pair apart.

Later that night Romeo sneaks back to the Capulet house and hides in the garden and overhears Juliet’s soliloquy from her balcony, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” When Romeo makes his appearance, the two flirt, declare their love and plan their future. They convince her nurse (Amy Usherwood) and Friar Lawrence (James Meava) to help them marry, which, to them, seems like a good way to end the Capulet-Montague feud. All agree the marriage must be kept secret until after they’ve consummated the union, which they accomplish – a night of bliss that ends with Romeo bidding farewell as he clambers down a rope ladder just as dawn breaks.

Tybalt hasn’t forgotten, much less forgiven, the trespass on the Capulet party two nights prior and tracks down and murders Mercutio who cries, “A plague on both your houses!” as he dies. In a rage, Romeo slays Tybalt. The Prince, showing mercy, suspends the death penalty and banishes Romeo from Verona for life.

On the off-chance you have never seen Romeo and Juliet on film or on stage, this synopsis will end here. You can uncover the fate of our star-crossed lovers on your own. But for godssake – do it at Pop-up Globe!

This is not your grandmother’s Shakespeare – no rambling monologues in mono-tonal Elizabethan English. No unrelenting tragic gloom. No earnestly faithful, verbatim replication of a 400-year-old script, the life sucked out by analysis, veneration and academic-correctness. This is Shakespeare that will keep you wide-awake, on the edge of your seat, laughing and crying and possibly running for cover.

Director and founder Dr Miles Gregory has devoted his life to the study and performance of Shakespeare and his vision is clear. Shakespeare lives! Bawdy, raunchy, full of piss & vinegar. This is theatre for the commoner. It is eternal, in your face. And he clearly feels as much passion for his young lovers as they do for each other.

Gregory pulls off the rather miraculous feat of preserving the authenticity of 13-year-old Juliet, still a child, but passionately in love with the slightly older Romeo. While it was not unusual for the daughter of a wealthy man to be married off at such a young age in Elizabethan times, this was generally a matter of managing wealth and social class, not indulging a teenage crush. And though we might be tempted to dismiss their love as little more than that, who can’t recall our own first love and its unbridled, innocent passion and know we wouldn’t have rushed headlong into a lifelong commitment based on love at first sight? Without the aid and abetment of Juliet’s nurse and Friar Lawrence who believed this marriage would bring peace to Verona, it would never have happened with Romeo and Juliet. Kudos to Jess Hong for her gentle and loving portrayal of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, caught up in passion beyond her control.

Miles Gregory’s vision of Romeo and Juliet is brought to life with a remarkable team of collaborators, too many to list here. Costume designer Chantelle Gerard presents an astonishing array of elaborate period garments, from the whimsical party costumes, fancy dress, dayware and street fight scenes. Alexander Holloway (who also plays Tybalt) directed the impeccably choreographed fight scenes.

Ultimately it falls to the cast to deliver the vision to the audience and the wildly talented Northumberland’s Company does this in spades. Darcy Kent’s Romeo captures the angst, longing and clumsy passion of a teenager in love. Alexander Holloway’s Tybalt is that utterly loathsome braggart we all hate to be near. But Rutene Spooner is the ultimate scene stealer as Romeo’s best mate, Mercutio. Singing, dancing, cajoling, taunting – he is comedy wild-fire. The saddest part of his murder was the realisation he wouldn’t be seen for the rest of the play.

This Romeo and Juliet is honestly the finest production of the play I have ever seen, a sheer joy to witness from the opening brawl to the final rousing curtain call. If you have never been to Pop-up Globe – go! This is the farewell season and you won’t have another chance. If you have, even if you saw the first season’s production of the play, don’t miss this.

Romeo and Juliet is playing until 1 March and word is there will be no extended season.

Book tickets HERE.

~Veronica McLaughlin

Veronica McLaughlin