The story of Romeo And Juliet has been told a lot of times before, both on stage and on film – however, Eryn Jean Norvill, who plays Juliet in Sydney Theatre Company’s upcoming production, says that that this version of the tale is truly unique. Director Kip Williams hasn’t opted for any gimmicks or shock tactics. Instead, he’s stripped the story back to its bare bones, with its primary focus on the Capulet family. “Kip has pared the text back,” Norvill explains. “Technically and thematically and dramatically, he’s doing a very challenging thing with this play. This version invests far more heavily in Juliet’s story. It focuses in on the suffocation she feels in her family, and her need to escape from the pressure of her parents’ expectations, especially that she’ll marry Paris, the man they’ve picked out for her.”
This pared-back version of the familiar story has forced Norvill and her fellow actors to reconsider Shakespeare’s well-known Capulet characters. “I think Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, is a really interesting figure,” she says. “She’s resigned to her fate – she knows that she’s going to be in this marriage for the rest of her life, she’s trapped there with her husband. Juliet sees that as a possible future for herself, and that is very terrifying to her. Juliet feels that if she marries Paris, she’ll end up on the same path as her parents – in this hateful and unhappy marriage. Then she meets Romeo, and it’s not only love at first sight, it’s not only an explosion of sexual attraction, it’s also a new path opening up to her. It’s an option to change her story and escape.”
For many, Claire Danes gave the defining performance as Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film version of the play, and I’m curious to know how difficult it is to avoid being influenced by such a well-known portrayal. “It’s hard not to be influenced, because I’m a very permeable person,” Norvill admits, “but I’d never try and live up to that performance, because that’s an outrageous expectation to place on myself. For me, it’s really just about meeting the people in the room,” she continues. “Once the world starts to form around you, and you start to have these collisions with other actors and their ideas and portrayals, those outside things start to disappear. I’m pretty lucky, because the team I’m working with is very exciting. There’s a lot of fun to be had.”
One of the real challenges of rehearsing Romeo And Juliet, Norvill says, is learning to deliver the nuances of Shakespeare’s dialogue. “It’s so textured and so melodic, and the ideas in it are so rich,” she says. “It can be a real challenge to get your head around it. You don’t only need to land the rhythm, you need to land the ideas and emotions, and that’s a really big task, especially when there’s so much to say.” At the same time, Norvill says, she feels lucky as a performer to be able to tackle this role, even if she does feel a little intimidated by it. “The thing I need to remember is that, even once I have a sense of the iambic pentameter, I need to make sure the audience has a sense of it, too,” she laughs. “Whenever I see Shakespeare, it always takes a while for my ear to adjust. You have to think very carefully about it. I’m a messy person – I’m late and disorganised, and I find it difficult to be on top of things like that immediately.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Sydney Theatre Company presents Romeo And Juliet by William Shakespeare from September 17 through November 2.