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Single-sex take on Shakespeare by Robin Usher, The Age

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Robin Usher
The Age

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The Bard’s famous love story gets an all-female rewrite

SHAKESPEARE’S Juliet is one of drama’s most famous characters but she is seldom considered a solo character divorced from Romeo, her famous lover.

Zoey Dawson is out to change that with a contemporary, all-female production of Romeo and Juliet, featuring some of Melbourne’s finest young actors.

”I want to reconfigure the play with Juliet in the centre of it,” she says. ”Most of Shakespeare’s important characters are male but this is really her story – Juliet has the strongest dramatic arc. She is the one asking the questions and has the big monologues. She is like Hamlet because everything depends on what she does – when Romeo is banished he sits on the floor and cries.”

A key ingredient of her interpretation is Juliet’s youth. She is only 13, and Romeo is only one year older. ”There is a taboo in looking at the sexuality of teenage girls,” Dawson says. ”There is a general reluctance to discuss the pain they go through during adolescence, even though the effects of so-called puppy love can resound for the rest of their lives.”

She describes the inspiration for the project as ”a female thing”, with a cast that includes Brigid Gallacher as Juliet. ”We all know what it is like to have fallen in love and had our hearts broken,” she says. ”That will help us deal with the weight of the story.”

There is no doubting Juliet’s innocence. Her father says of her: ”My daughter is but a stranger to the world.”

”But it is impossible to be like that today,” Dawson says. ”It was already gone when Zeffirelli made his famous film version [in 1968].”

Dawson is keen to examine the role cultural conditioning plays in Juliet’s decision to kill herself over Romeo, a youth she meets only days before.

”She is a child emulating the adult world,” she says.

But Gallacher has a different view. ”It is an all-consuming love that lasts five days,” she says. ”The young have no perspective so I can understand the desire to die when it is all taken away.” But she finds her method of suicide – stabbing herself in the heart – disturbing. ”That is a really worrying act from a young girl.”

Gallacher says the demands of the role are terrifying. ”I never studied at drama school and I find it an enormous responsibility to serve Shakespeare’s poetry.”

Although the women in the production are not teenagers – Dawson is 26 and Gallacher is 25 – Dawson says they know what it is like to be a teenager in today’s society. ”They are big girls pretending to be little girls playing big girls,” she laughs. ”Women playing men is also the reverse from what happened in Elizabethan England. It will be interesting to see what happens with female actors impersonating masculinity.”

Romeo’s role has been divided into five segments, which will be performed in turn by the other cast members, as well as all other roles.

She says the show is not all gloom. ”There is a lot of fun because I think the famous balcony scene is one of the most hilarious in all Shakespeare.”

Dawson spent three months in 2010 studying at the Shakespeare and Company theatre school in Massachusetts. Before that she completed a creative arts degree at La Trobe University where she directed a student version of Romeo and Juliet. Her company, I’m Trying To Kiss You, had a hit at last year’s fringe festival with I Know There’s a Lot of Noise Outside But You Have to Close Your Eyes, which she plans to present again later this year.

She finished 2011 playing the character based on Norway mass-murderer, Anders Breivik, in the controversial production by MKA, The Economist, in December.

Dawson grew up in Seymour which she says has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the state. ”I sometimes wonder what would have happened to Juliet if the play had a different ending. Would the focus have shifted to teen pregnancy?”

Find out more about The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet here.

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