Romeo and Juliet

Production: March 18 – March 28 2009

THE Old Mill Theatre is launching its 2009 season this March with Shakespeare’s immortal love story Romeo & Juliet, to be performed in the Scented Gardens near the South Perth foreshore.

Part of the South Perth Fiesta, award-winning director Stephen Lee has taken on the challenge of putting together the Old Mill Theatre’s first outdoor production by the Swan River.

Lee confesses a 30-year love for the works of Shakespeare and has directed 25 of the Bard’s plays, also previously acting in four different versions of Romeo & Juliet.

“Romeo & Juliet is by far the most popular thing Shakespeare wrote and it was actually the first play I directed on my own when at university in London, back in 1978,” he said.

“When the Old Mill Theatre approached me with the idea of directing something for the open air that would be accessible to an audience, I found the idea of revisiting the play very appealing to see how much I had learned after three decades of directing.

“The Scented Gardens’ location was a given but Shakespeare’s plays were actually written to be performed in the open air and I have directed several productions in this way – and Perth’s is well-suited to a night of theatre under the stars.”

Lee admits one of the biggest challenges every director faces with Romeo & Juliet is the casting of Juliet herself, who needs to look convincingly young but have the capability to play a difficult and challenge role.

“Many major productions have come to grief on this but we’ve been very lucky with Sarah Isaacson who, while still seemingly in her young teens, is an intelligent and mature 19-year-old actress,” he said.

“The play itself can be a problem because it’s clearly written by a young Shakespeare and tends towards a little too much verbal exuberance so, if played uncut, it can run for three hours or more.

“But Shakespeare’s youth as a writer gives the piece a vigour and energy that is both powerful and exciting.”

Many have dismissed Shakespeare as “boring” over the years but Lee believes nothing could be further from the truth.

“Schools have done the Bard a major disservice,” he said. “The plays are read in a dull classroom setting and often forced upon children at an early age, which is enough to put anyone offside.

“To really appreciate the man’s work we need to approach it as Shakespeare would have expected us to, using a live performance with actors, director, costume, sound and lighting all working together to make the experience powerful and comprehensible.

“Romeo & Juliet is simple and compelling, using timeless and universal themes. We know what it’s like to have been in love with all its heartaches and joys, along with the problems caused by difficult parents.

“While our job is to be true to what Shakespeare wrote, we must not let this respect make our performance stuffy, stodgy, or old-fashioned – we want people to laugh, cry and be thrilled.”

Originally from the UK, Lee has a wealth of experience and successful productions behind him, including an acting stint on The Bill and directing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End and the Raduga Festival in St Petersburg.

Moving to Perth in 2002, he has appeared in The Elephant Man, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale and directed Othello, Twelfth Night, Lysistrata, A Christmas Carol and What The Butler Saw, among many others, set up The Method Studio and worked as artistic director for Attic Theatre.

Lee describes Romeo & Juliet as “a feast for all five senses” with colour and spectacle, swordfights, dances, music and a strong, compelling story that is both humorous and heart-warming.

Romeo & Juliet plays at 7.30pm, March 18 to 22 and 25 to 28. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 concessions and $10 for children (under 12). Bookings can be made through BOCS on 9484 1133 (booking fees apply) with tickets also available at the gate.

The audience is invited to bring cushions, blankets and a picnic basket to enjoy before the show. Low beach-style chairs are allowed but larger chairs will be moved before the performance to ensure a clear view of the play.

The Scented Gardens are located in Sir James Mitchell Park, about 200m east of Mends Street jetty, on the South Perth foreshore.