& Juliet Sydney review: Shakespeare’s doomed lover finds her story and her voice in exuberant musical

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
& Juliet has opened in Sydney.
& Juliet has opened in Sydney. Credit: Daniel Boud/Michael Cassel Group

When it comes to adapting classic literature for the modern world, William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is one of the go-tos.

In the hundred-plus years since the advent of moving pictures, there have been hundreds of versions of the romantic tragedy in films and TV shows. Some have been faithful versions while others have taken the basic premise and run wild with it.

Romeo and Juliet has played out as a love story with garden gnomes, it’s inspired TV movies about rival pizza restaurants, and it gave birth to an underground film in which the two lovers are brother and sister.

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Writers and directors have played with Shakespeare’s famous story of two star-crossed lovers whose families have engaged in an ancient, deadly rivalry. Everyone knows the basic gist of it: Romeo meets Juliet, some flowery words are exchanged and over the course of a few days, they fall so madly in love they marry in secret and eventually kill themselves when they believe the other to be dead.

Even in Shakespeare’s time, that was dramatic. It’s certainly weird now to think any 16-year-old and 13-year-old would go to such extreme lengths, even with all those raging hormones.

& Juliet has opened in Sydney.
& Juliet is an exuberant stage production. Credit: Daniel Boud/Michael Cassel Group

Not every version of Romeo and Juliet has ended with their deaths. Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story famously lets its Juliet (Maria) live even if Romeo (Tony) does not.

But in West Side Story, that’s where Maria’s story ended, with Maria the last in a procession of Tony’s body. What happens next?

That’s what & Juliet is interested in. The rousing jukebox musical opened on the West End in 2019 and has finally arrived in Sydney after playing engagements in Melbourne and Perth.

Featuring infectious and energetic pop hits from Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Pink and Robyn, it’s a euphoric production that literally encourages the audience to their feet.

It’s frothy and dazzling and always goes for the big emotional moment. Some may find the choice of top 40 hits grating and on the nose, but in the context of a colourful stage production with exuberant performances and dance choreography, songs you might skip if they came on the radio now makes sense. It’s hard not to lose yourself to its insistence.

But for all that, what & Juliet does best is re-write Shakespeare’s story. It cleverly frames Juliet’s tale as that of Anne Hathaway – not the American actor but Shakespeare’s wife whom the Devil Wears Prada star was reportedly named after.

Little is known about Hathaway. There are some historical records of her birth and her marriage and that Shakespeare left to her in his will his “second-best bed”. For history’s most famous storyteller, we know nothing of his wife’s story.

& Juliet has opened in Sydney.
& Juliet gives agency to its female and non-binary characters. Credit: Daniel Boud/Michael Cassel Group

In & Juliet, Anne is the one who drives everything. The set-up is Shakespeare (Rob Mills in the Australian production) is about to write the ending to Romeo and Juliet when Anne (Amy Lehpamer, giving off serious Hannah Waddingham vibes) objects to the characters’ grim fates.

She suggests Juliet does not stab herself with a dagger and instead decides to move on. The musical unfolds with her, new characters May (Jesse Dutlow) and April (Anne, writing herself into the story) and the nurse, now named Angelique (Casey Donovan), moving to Paris to start anew.

She’s a young woman – now in her 20s instead of 13 – in her prime and she discovers that what she really needs is not a love-bomber she met only days earlier but herself.

It’s a play about agency – for Juliet, for Anne, for May, and for Angelique. Reclaiming your story for yourself.

It’s a thoroughly modern version of an icon. Shakespeare purists will have long ago become used to Romeo and Juliet being changed and updated but & Juliet is a persuasive argument for why classics can and should be updated.

Whether they be from centuries ago or even a few years past, fandoms are often resistant to any “tinkering” of that which they love. Remakes, reboots, reimaginings and updates are frequently derided before they debut.

Sometimes, detractors will throw around invectives like “woke” to slander a new project that seeks to reflect the current era, to inject non-binary characters (such as & Juliet’s May) or gender-flip others, and accuse those involved of “messing” with something that is already perfect.

& Juliet has opened in Sydney.
Lorinda May Merrypor as Juliet in the Australian production. Credit: Daniel Boud/Michael Cassel Group

Culture cannot stand still as if trapped in aspic. Culture – high, low and pop – is always in conversation with what came before, it’s built on a foundation of work.

Updating stories for modern audiences speaks to this moment without erasing the time in which something originated.

Romeo and Juliet was written between 1591 and 1595. & Juliet was first staged in 2019. Those two eras are worlds apart. Even the time between the first version of Gossip Girl in 2007 and the remake in 2021 brought on world-shifting social changes.

The first Ghostbusters movie came out in 1984, the all-female version was released in 2016. Did the world end? It did not. Did the 1984 version disappear from cultural history? It did not.

But you wouldn’t have known it from the hordes of deranged online chicken littles who screeched the sky would fall if Melissa McCarthy was allowed to wield a proton pack.

Not every remake is good. But neither is every piece of original work then or now.

Today’s culture should reflect today. We need to be a lot less precious.

Tickets for & Juliet at Sydney Lyric is currently on sale for dates to June 2

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