Romeo & Juliet

by William Shakespeare / 2016, Pop-up Globe, Auckland, Aotearoa-NZ / Directed by Ben Naylor / Costume design by Chantelle Gerrard / Music by Paul McLaney / Movement by Chris Jannides / Fight direction by Alexander Holloway

In the spring of 2015, I had an intriguing offer from an old friend: the brilliant Miles Gregory was wondering if I might be interested in working on a project he’d been developing for a few months, and was planning to stage in Auckland at the end of the year.

Just fourteen months after Miles came up with the idea, Pop-up Globe was playing to 900 people a night in a central Auckland car park. I directed this opening production for the company’s first season – which saw PUG become a runaway theatrical phenomenon – and introduced the principles of Shakespearean performance I’ve developed at Central as the basis of the company’s house style.

Pop-up Globe is a full-scale, postmodern, moveable replica of the Second Globe Theatre, first created for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. In directing the opening in-house production, I wanted to make work which would feel at home in Auckland in 2016, as well as making sense in this particular theatre. This was no small task; for one thing, I’d never been to Auckland. And for another, a theatre like this had never existed before – and indeed still didn’t, in a functional sense, until a couple of days before we opened …

PUG draws upon the theories of Prof Tim Fitzpatrick of Sydney University relating to the size and layout of the original Globe theatre; ideas which have been gaining traction in the scholarly community in recent years. It’s thus both in size (88′ as opposed to 100′) and in style (fabricated out of scaffolding and plywood with little attempt at aesthetic ‘authenticity’) a very different beast from Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Naturally our approach was nonetheless much indebted to the principles of playing I learned at Shakespeare’s Globe, and which I’ve developed teaching both there and at Central; but the theatre, and the South Pacific environment in which we were making the work, inevitably exerted their own mysterious pressures to engender a recognisable but distinctive playing style.

To make a production which felt at home in this smoke-and-mirrors, new-old environment on the other side of the world, and with a multi-national, multi-ethnic cast, we drew upon both European and Pacific culture: Renaissance Masque and sword-fighting manuals combined with the structure of the Maori powhiri and kapa haka in the physical language of the work. The costumes were non-specifically contemporary, using the shapes and imagery of punk and gang culture, while retaining a Catholic milieu and Renaissance status structures (especially those relating to open-carry of lethal weapons). The live music referenced contemporary teenage music tastes – hip-hop, rock, even Taylor Swift – as well as traditional folk; and we concluded with a jig.

Making this work was immeasurably enriched by the introduction into Maori culture I was given by the inspirational Miriama McDowell (Ngati Hine), who played Lady Capulet. (Miriama and I went on to collaborate as the directors of the Queens Company the following season, making Othello and Much Ado About Nothing together and further developing the Pasifika element of PUG’s performance approach.)

The production starred two prodigiously talented recent graduates of my course at Central, Jonny Tynan-Moss and Stanley Jackson. As Romeo and Mercutio, they spent a summer straight out of drama school as Auckland’s Shakespearean heart-throbs; they’ve since returned as Rosalind and Celia in the second season in Auckland and Melbourne, setting Antipodean audiences alight with the skills they brought from Central.

Initially, the NZ theatre community was very wary of Pop-up Globe (just as the London theatre community was when our own replica opened). It took a while, perhaps, for NZ’s small theatre scene to see what an asset a serious (and highly innovative) classical theatre company would be; the big fish of the tiny critical community tried initially to ignore or disparage what we were doing. Those who were able to see that something very new and interesting had just happened in a place not known for theatrical innovation, loved the work. And of course, audiences make their own decisions: over 100,000 theatregoers attended the season.

NZ Herald – “The compelling physical intimacy of Shakespearean theatre in which earthy buffoonery rubs shoulders with the most transcendent poetry … Director Ben Naylor thrusts us into [a] dangerous, unpredictable world.”

Theatreview – “Headed by director Ben Naylor, the production is rich, full, lively and hilarious, hitting all the right notes … With a strong cast and confident direction, in the Pop Up Globe Romeo and Juliet simply zings.”

Restless Empire – “This is a brilliantly enthralling performance of Romeo and Juliet. Director Ben Naylor has turned the tables and created outbursts of laughter with his fresh take on once over-done and threadbare scenes … A rich performance, bursting with characters, energy and hilarity.”

In the ensuing three years, with approaching half a million tickets sold and twelve in-house productions, PUG is the biggest Shakespearean theatre company in the Southern Hemisphere; it’s even inspiring copy-cat initiatives over here (Shakespeare’s Rose in York). It’s a huge privilege to have been a significant part of the vision and practice of this exceptional theatre from the very beginning.

Photography by Peter Meecham