Actor and director Zoey Dawson presents an all-female production of Romeo and Juliet at fortyfivedownstairs, sharing the space with an all male production of Henry IV.
How did you come to this play?
I'd never seen a production that was really concerned with Juliet herself. Romeo and Juliet usually come as a couple. I wanted to yank them apart and just look at what happens to her. The fact that she meets a boy at a party and four days later she kills herself. What is that?
This production emerged out of an honours year project, is that right?
That was in 2010. I'm calling it an extensive development period. Before then I wasn't so keen on it, really. But after I was assigned to it at university, and read it through, I was like, shit, this is a 13-year-old girl, and yet it's part of this great romantic mythology.
I thought, OK, so my cousin is 13, and she's obsessed with Twilight. I look at her, and other 13-year-olds, and I think: she is a child. How did this romantic mythology build up around a child? That was where it started, when I realised Juliet was 13.
You have a cast of only six – has the script been cut much?
I've adapted it so that it's a bit shorter. But we're very much using Shakespeare's text. It's presented as six actors interacting with the story and with the whole mythology that surrounds the script, and seeing what comes out of that.
And the prism is the female experience?
Yeah – to have women create their interpretation of the men – as in, I'm a woman, but this is my understanding of masculinity, of what men do, and how men interact with women. It's really interesting to create the balance of energy where a woman is empowered to perform masculinity, because it's so often the other way around. There are so many male drag queens who perform femininity. I find it really empowering. To watch a man perform the role of a woman, or a woman perform the role of a man, is to understand that actor's understanding of the other sex.
It's interesting because Juliet, the main female character, is perhaps the most life-like character in the play.
That's exactly where this adaptation came from. Juliet is the only real person. So we put her right in the middle of the stage. The set consists of a box in the middle of this very theatrical space, but inside that box, where Juliet is, is the real world.
There are six actresses, and one of them plays Juliet, and the other five play Romeo, as well as all the other characters. So Juliet is the only person who doesn't change, who isn't an actor performing these roles. All the other actors are changing roles, they're fighting over who is playing who. It's all very performative, but it's all happening around Juliet.
I can't believe you didn't you call it 5xRomeo? Hilarious. Although I guess that misses the point.
And I thought about it too! But, well, I didn't want to rip off the Hayloft Project too much. I considered calling it Juliet and Juliet, because the play is so much about Juliet. But I didn't want to get too gimicky. And I really like Shakespeare's original title: The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. I like what it adds to our understanding of the story – what is an excellent and lamentable tragedy? It heightens our awareness of the mythology.
And so you see Romeo more as a composite? He doesn't develop as a character in the same way as Juliet?
Juliet is the same person through the whole play; she has the same values; and though her character changes and grows, she's incredibly steadfast. Romeo on the other hand changes all the time. In fact, I found in the script that there are these five completely different Romeos. I think it's interesting with these Romeos to think about the transformative power of love, about how you meet someone and they can completely change you. But anyway, I just took that it's natural conclusion, having five different actresses play Romeo.
As though Shakespeare were writing in different poetic registers to achieve different effects at different times?
He starts out, for example, Romeo number one, as the Romeo who is still in love with Rosalind – we call him Emo Romeo. He's sort of mopey – "Oh, I'm so depressed." Then as soon as he sees Juliet at the party he becomes a different person. He's actually a different person. There's no trace of the Romeo that you saw before. He's impulsive and spontaneous.
Has Juliet been obscured because her language is not as high-sounding or poetically embellished as some of the male characters?
The other characters have very high, very flowery poetic language, because you can afford to be flowery and poetic in your language when you're not actually trying to do something, when it's just rhetoric.
Like Romeo on the balcony – he's just waxing lyrical. Juliet on the other hand is always trying to do something. She's the one who constantly has to make choices and understand these things that are put upon her. "What am I going to do? What will happen if this happens?" She's always trying to solve the puzzle that she's in. A lot of the other characters are just romanticising or feeling sorry for themselves. Juliet is the character who says, "Yes, but what are we going to do?"
And that's the whole play. A lot of people faffing around and her in the middle trying to figure it out. The tragedy is that a whole lot of people take part in what happens to this young, young girl without much thought as to what might happen to her.
How is it going to work portraying a 13-year-old girl?
A really good actress. Brigid Gallacher played a 16-year-old last year at the MTC's Circle Mirror Transformation. It was when I saw that that I thought, yep, she can do this. She has an energy about her as an actress, a vulnerable tom-boy thing. She reminds me of Michelle Williams. As an actor to watch she has this power over an audience where you just want her to be happy. When I look at her perform I just think, I would do anything for you to get what you want.
Ooow. I feel sad already.
Yeah, it's going to be really sad and really beautiful.
And this is where you're exploring questions about the sexualisation of children?
It's definitely a feminist reading of Romeo and Juliet. All the work I make ends up being about gender and about the experience of being a woman. That's what I do with I'm Trying to Kiss You, one of the theatre collectives I work with.
But if you think of how her father tries to marry her off to this guy who is obviously a lot older than her – "if you be mine I give you to my friend" – well, that doesn't really happen now, but what does happen to 13-year-old girls is that society says, "This is how you act like a woman. This is how you get men to like you."
It's such a precarious age. I really wanted to question everything around the experience of a 13-year-old girl, and how those things influence her relation to the opposite sex. How do you even learn what to do when you meet a boy at a party? How do you learn how to relate to him? How do you learn to perform femininity? How do you learn to deal with that moment when men start looking at you differently as a child? Every woman has had that experience where you're not a child anymore, but you don't quite know what that means.
It's like that movie, Thirteen (2003). I think the tragedy kicks off because a 13-year-old wants sexy clothes.
It's very bizarre. I started smoking when I was about 14 and it was for a guy, for the guy I liked. It's all these little tragedies in my life. Why did that happen?
These are readings of gender identity that really stand up to examination in theatre, especially now, especially involving 13-year-olds. What I love about contemporising Shakespeare, and why I think it works so well, is that even though these plays were written so long ago we can look at Juliet and think, she's the same. For an actress to say, "This is still what I'd do if I were in this situation", well how is it that these sort of gender stereotypes still ring true all these years later. What does that mean about how far we've progressed as a society if it still feels realistic that young girls in general are concerned with the love of a man, and that's still understood as how you win as a woman.
Is there a moment in the play which really encapsulates that experience?
The image that really got me at the beginning of the project was that of Juliet, left alone on stage at the end, after Romeo has killed himself and the Friar has left.
The image of Juliet at the end going, "What the fuck? How did this happen?" It really spoke to me as a woman, as a rite of passage for a young girl. Every young girl goes through this in a way. It is every young woman's experience of first love and every young woman's experience of that time when you metaphorically die. The first time you end up alone in your bedroom saying I wish I were dead.
We talked about it after the first read through, with the 12 women who are involved in the show, and without even needing to say it, you knew that every person in the room had had that experience.
Actually, when I was first assigned this play at uni it was December, and I was really happy and I was in a relationship. But then in January when we came to rehearse I'd just been dumped, and so the play took this very cruel left hand turn. Suddenly the play was about Juliet and how she gets fucked over by all these men and how she gets left alone on stage, crying. And I was like, she's going to take five minutes to die and the audience is just going to have to watch her.
It's actually nice to be able to remount it because I can look back and say, OK, I can understand why you did it that, but this time I'm trying to add a bit more wisdom, maybe.
As you say, the cast is quite young. I know that you spent a year training in the Conservatory of Classical Performance at the Shakespeare Company in America, but how are the rest of the cast coping with the technical demands?
I find Shakespeare an incredible mix between technical skill and emotional intuition. It's really interesting because some of the actresses I'm working with have done Shakespeare before and some of them haven't. Brigid has never done Shakespeare before and it's wonderful working with someone who's never done Shakespeare before because it's all so new, especially to have a Juliet who hasn't done Shakespeare before.
Tell us about the production of Henry IV which you're sharing the space with?
I studied at La Trobe which is where Rob Conkie is basically head of theatre and drama. He was my honours supervisor where I did my original production of Romeo and Juliet. Rob developed his production of Henry IV using five male actors and traditional Elizabethan practices. So his Henry IV is completely the opposite of my Romeo and Juliet in every way imaginable.
We've got a young female cast, and his is all older males. Mine is really modern and really performative, very directorial and concept driven; his is really traditional, reflective of how the Elizabethans performed. The audience and the actors are lit the whole time. It's very interactive in the way the actors perform to the audience – more theatre for the people. There's no fourth wall in his production. And ours is romantic tragedy and his is historical comedy.
But they will work well together. They both use very sparse sets. We do night for night. The sets just roll in and roll out.