So Romeo and Juliet die. Then what? This is the question asked by After Juliet, which picks up where Shakespeare left off, in a Verona teeming with controversy following the untimely deaths of the famous star cross’d lovers. The Capulets and Montagues skirt around each other in an uneasy ceasefire, while the Capulets prepare for the election of the new Prince of Cats and several unseen characters (Juliet’s nurse, the messenger, the Friar and the apothecary) stand trial for their involvement in Romeo and Juliet’s deaths.
Often, plays that depict the backstory of, or sequel to, other more famous works are satirical and comic, but at heart After Juliet is a drama. Our lead character is Rosaline, played well if sometimes a little melodramatically by Debra Buckingham. Jealous, bitter and grieving, Rosaline feels torn between two worlds. While her upbringing tells her that she should yearn for violent revenge against the Montagues, she really blames her cousin Juliet for the death of Rosaline’s beloved Romeo. Juliet, it turns out, isn’t all the innocent sweetness that Claire Danes in angel wings would have us believe. “You were rich, Mummy’s darling, quite a bitch”, says Rosaline as she stands at her cousin’s grave, recalling how, from clothes to toys to, ultimately, men, Juliet always got what she wanted.
It is plot elements like these, where MacDonald’s script takes off naturally from Shakespeare, that makes After Juliet an engaging piece of theatre. Although some of the characters are dubious (I’m fairly sure, for example, that Mercutio never mentioned having a twin brother in the original, and it seems implausible that Juliet should have cousins in Glasgow [clan Capulet?], visiting Verona, no less), it gave this Shakespeare lover a thrill to see the material that the master gave us being extrapolated so cleverly into an entirely new story. The dialogue itself is sharp, formal enough to hearken back to the source material but shot through with vernacular. So rhyming couplets (“Peter, for he did obey his master’s hess, has good to leave, without distress”) are performed cheek-to-jowl with contemporary slang (“You’re a big fuck-off liar, Lorenzo”). MacDonald’s script is, at points, modelled cheekily on Shakespeare’s. The “Do you bite your thumb, sir?” exchange here becomes “D o you call my love a fish, sir?”, while there are shades of Will the Bard’s bawdiness in lines such as “No woman will marry a man with a damp hand”.
Given these elements of the script at hand, Matt Bentley does well to set his production in a non-time somewhere between Shakespeare’s day and our own. The characters are mostly in modern dress, but still fight with swords, even while lighting their way with battery-powered torches. Gryphon Theatre’s deep stage is well-utilised, sporting a large, multi-level, vaguely castle-like structure which allows action to be happening in a number of different places at once. Contemporary pop songs – among them ‘All of Me’, ‘The Voice Within’ and ‘Innocent Eyes’ – are also emlpoyed, sung by the characters to varying effect.
At 14-strong, After Juliet’s is a large cast, and local teacher Bentley’s is also a young one, close to the ages of Romeo and Juliet themselves. Bentley coaxes strong perfomances out of most of his cast. Bala Menzies is a comic standout in the role of Gianni and Chris Curry endows Benvolio with a striking sensitvity. Playing Juliet’s cousin Helena is Jane Birdling, who is not only quite lovely looking but a very talented young actress with an excellent singing voice. Juliet Urlich also deserves mention as a vocalist. Unfortunately Renee Pink, the main vocalist, has the weakest voice and is a particularly poor choice for songs requiring a higher range.
After Juliet is amateur, but a very good example of why amateur doesn’t necessarily equate with bad. This is a vibrant, exhilirating and generally polished production showcasing the promise in Wellington’s theatre industry.