We waste our lights in vain, like lamps by day.

Mercutio: I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind

Romeo & Juliet, Act 1, Scene 4

Verona

I will never forget the first time I saw Romeo & Juliet. I was young and despite knowing the outcome of the tragic love story I was utterly unprepared for the blunt realness of the characters, the utter truth of their emotions and intentions, and the stark, gut-wrenching sadness of the climactic scene which left me breathless, shaken to my core, unearthing emotions that I had never known in my short life but were curiously understandable and resoundingly authentic.

Since then I have performed, directed, taught, and studied the play in many different forms and each time, without fail, the work reveals further shades of beauty, paradox, irony and consequence. And each time I am left astonished by the power and truth of this most ubiquitous of tales.

One of the great geniuses of Shakespeare is his acute awareness of narrative timing: when to reveal certain information and to whom, making the audience an unwitting and unwilling party to circumstances the characters are unaware of until it is too late, positioning the viewers in that torturous realm of bearing too much knowledge while possessing too little power, and with nothing to do but watch helplessly as events hurtle toward their inevitable conclusions. And with this very deliberate tactic Shakespeare masterfully underpins the ever-present power of fate that the characters observe in the throes of their helplessness throughout the play.

Fate and premonition feature large in Shakespeare’s work, and the audience is constantly challenged to consider the play of cause and effect in each character’s arc, the agony of thwarted plans and mislaid intentions. Shakespeare uses this powerful form of character-sympathy to great effect, causing us to align ourselves not only with Romeo and Juliet, but with the entire cast, the good and the bad. We find ourselves in admiration of Tybalt, entranced by his unflinching honor and prowess, qualities even the cynical Mercutio is forced to respect in his appraisement of Tybalt’s character. We are ever grateful for the presence of the able but peace-loving Benvolio, loyal and caring to a fault, but a man’s man when the occasion calls. The Nurse and Friar Lawrence play stable, wise adults amidst the tumultuous broil of youthful passion, but are real enough to make mistakes and to accept their own powerlessness in the face of the all-consuming hatred between the two households.

But above all it is Mercutio who steals the play. From the moment he first appears we feel the tangible pull of his tragic fate as strong as that of Romeo’s. Yet in a way his story surpasses even his friend’s in the depths of its heart-wrenching sadness because he is the only one who is ultimately faultless and can see the entire charade for what it is: “nothing but vain fantasy, which is as thin of substance as the air and more inconstant than the wind.”

Mercutio is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s ‘fool’ characters whose mocking humor betrays his insight into the reality of circumstances; the futile struggle against the pride and inconstancy of man. His death is among the most telling and tragic moments of the stage, because with him dies the truest of all loyal, wise and innocent spirits.

For even up until his death Mercutio truly wants to believe in the invincibility of his friendships, he wants to believe in the love that Romeo proclaims, he wants to believe in the innocence of their youthful rebellions, he wants to believe in the honor and nobility of Tybalt’s pride, and yet he knows that it is all doomed. This, as much as his defence of Romeo’s honor, is what drives him in anger to challenge Tybalt, knowing as he does that underneath their boyish tussling death waits concrete and inevitable.

John McEnery’s portrayal of the character in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film interpretation is one of the truest renditions yet. From the madness of the Queen Mab speech through to his untimely death, the sheer mortality of the character quivers beneath McEnery’s every mocking phrase and slapstick outburst. Never once does he misinterpret or let slip the intensity of Mercutio’s loyalty to Romeo, even in the throes of death. McEnery’s Mercutio knows the imminence of his fate, and yet when he meets it, he wrestles still with the senselessness of the loss of his young life at the hands of an ancient, baseless feud. This is what makes his famous curse so much the fullness of despair and fatality: “A plague on both your houses!”

Mercutio

Taking us far beyond a simple, tragic love story, in Romeo & Juliet Shakespeare captures completely the beauty and violence of young male friendship, rivalry and loyalty, and through each new interpretation it is those scenes, full of hot-blooded mateship and mischief, that are most savoured, that enthral our emotion and attention: the lewd and tempestuous fight scene at the opening of Act 1; the bizarre yet insurmountably potent Queen Mab speech; the verbal jousting between Romeo and Mercutio in Act 2; and finally the catalytic opening of Act 3 which brings about the death of Mercutio and Tybalt and the banishment of Romeo, and which, some would argue, is the truest climax of the story, packing as much emotional significance as even the lover’s tomb scene.

Romeo & Juliet is more than a tale of ill-fated love and the impotence of pure intentions amidst an ancient vendetta of hate; it is the embodiment of the nobility and beauty of friendship and loyalty, never so strong as in the emotional upheaval of blind youth.

It is a celebration of the colour, life and passion of human relationships, a message that Mercutio sings loud throughout the play and which will never ring dull on the ears of a contemporary audience, not in the past, not now and certainly not into the future.

 

Elise Janes

 

Poetry

Molly parked her walker up under the window of the dayroom and took the last place at the table. The poet was sitting on one of the long sides; he’d set up plates of cream biscuits down the centre as if this was a kitchen table and it was going to be some chatty morning. Molly tried to pull her chair in so she could reach the complimentary paper.

First thing, before mention of the biscuits, they went round the table listing favourite poets. Keats, Browning, Wordsworth, a nod to Shakespeare and even God with the Psalms. As the latecomer, the visiting poet – whose name she couldn’t recall – came to Molly last. She said she liked Sylvia Plath. Not that she’d read anything beyond the sensational newspaper reports at the time, she just wanted to be different; she’d never been one to conform and wasn’t about to start. The poet nodded sagely.

‘Wasn’t she the one who killed herself?’ asked Arthur, the only male resident to turn up to the poetry workshop.

sylvia plath

The woman beside Molly leaned over and whispered for her alone: ‘that’s where poetry gets you.’ She smelled of Yardley lavender talc. Molly recognised her as she breathed her in, and was instantly glad Patience was here. She reached into her low slung cleavage to fetch out her glasses – that way she could see what was going on too.

‘So you are all fond of a poem with a rhyme, Plath fans excepted,’ said the poet with a tiny bit of acid in his voice. ‘Do you want to see if you can write something without rhyme?’ The enthusiasm was not returned unconditionally. The idea of a three line form poem seemed okay though. ‘None of us are likely to die before we finish,’ murmured Patience. Molly couldn’t help sticking her glasses back on her nose and glancing across at Joyce just to make sure. Joyce’s chin was resting on her chest and her baldness was exposed: a naval gazing slump.

Molly was still muttering out strict syllable patterns for her haiku about a muddy pond when Patience shoved her own bit of poetry-paper over for her to see.

Blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah

Molly put her hand over the paper and started a reply, feeling like she was at school again, sharing secrets with a girlfriend, living in the light of her smiles and approval.

Ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha

Patience gurgled and spluttered and sprayed a bit of spit and Molly lost sight of her as her own eyes crinkled into slits.

‘Would you like to share your poems?’ the poet asked. Molly opened her eyes to see him looking straight at her. The poor thing, what disappointments he must have had to end up doing poetry in an Aged Care Hostel.

‘No, it’s a bit personal,’ Patience interrupted boldly. She reached over and patted Molly’s goanna-skin hand. Molly felt electricity shoot up her arm. The hostel’s nylon carpet was a bugger for static. And she’d been in love with Patience from the moment her son admitted her. She missed Nancy every day – who wouldn’t after forty-three years together – but Nancy was dead and Patience lived in a room in the same corridor.

‘A love poem next,’ announced the poet. ‘Maybe we can extend ourselves to ten lines.’

Molly didn’t hear the instructions; she was composing a love letter she’d never send. She knew every metaphor she could come up with was a cliché because love was a cliché no matter the age. A nipple still stood up like a rose bud, tides still rose too, and a storm wave still crashed through secret caverns.

The room went silent around her except for the scratch of pens negotiating their way across paper and Joyce’s soft snoring. Molly did try to put some of her thoughts down but they were always one step ahead of her arthritic joints. Arthur was quicker. He read out an ode to a woman who was ‘the prettiest rose in the garden’ and ‘the twinkliest star in the sky.’ He wasn’t the only one in the workshop to tear up as he read, though his face remained a continent of dry creek beds and no tears fell. They all needed a break and an orange cream. A trolley of teacups chattered in. Patience poured more electricity into Molly as she touched her.

‘I was thinking about all those years at boarding school,’ Patience confessed. The left side of Patience’s face sagged a little even when she smiled. A stroke was not always as gentle a thing as the movement of Patience’s hand down Molly’s arm.

‘It is like school,’ agreed Molly, hoping to recapture the collusive intimacy of their haiku laughter.

‘I had a thing with one of the girls in the dorm.’ Patience stopped. Picked up Molly’s hand. Stroked the loose skin on the back into gullies before travelling the length of her index finger. ‘I always wondered if it counted and whether it meant I was a virgin on my wedding night. Can I get you a cup of tea? Two sugars isn’t it?’

 

Jane Downing

 

The Hemingway

I glimpsed her before she noticed me. Proud affect but generous smile, turquoise wrap, blonde shoulder-cut: not too long (not too young). I could hear her admission in my head, spoken with a wink: There are certain things one must accept with age. From the blurred corner of my eye I could make out the bright red of her lips, the dark contour of well-made eyes. She paused at the table over my left shoulder, thanking the waiter like an old friend, the kind of woman who owned a dog, a small dog, a city dog as they call them here.

I felt her eyes on me as I turned back to my journal, felt the burn of her curious stare: A young woman, alone, on a Saturday afternoon? Hers was a life of faded curiosities, memories of gilded grandeur and headline parties, now a sepia echo in her mind, kept alive, artificially, in photos, individually framed, of course, that frosted every surface of her Manhattan apartment. She must live nearby, I decided. She had the bearing of a regular, but not too regular. Just the right amount, just enough to keep them guessing.

Light cut down through the glassed courtyard, cold but bright. There’d been snow the day before, but not today. Today was a day you could believe spring was coming. A strange day for a young woman to be alone, here. I guessed she hadn’t come for the exhibits, had probably stepped through the red-velvet rooms countless times. No, she was here for the place, the atmosphere; her favourite drink, perhaps: The Riesling, thank you darling, it is lunchtime after all.

I’d ordered the devilled eggs, an entrée, of course. The only thing on the menu without bread attached to it. Protein was all one needed these days, apparently, especially if one were slightly militant about those things. And I was. I hadn’t eaten all day, but still the entrée was only an adornment for my drink, to make sure not too many eyebrows were raised. I knew that when my drink came she would stare harder: Who is this sassy girl, on her own, here on a Saturday afternoon?

I decided to ignore her, ignore my sense of her, and attend to the journal. I had promised myself I would write, every day, but of course I hadn’t. How do you put these things into words? All these moments, all these instants of awe. The illuminated Dante. That had been the one, my breath-taken moment. Hadn’t it? What about the scribbled entry from Thoreau, in its pre-Walden, anecdotal rawness? Or the barely legible Beethoven, a piano trio, I think. My hands tingled at the memory, a moment already glistening like a fantasy in my mind, as if it happened years ago, to someone else.

Hemingway-picMy food came, four lonely half-eggs on a plate. And then the main course, the one I couldn’t resist: The Hemingway. The menu had mis-referenced, of course, it had been Ford who’d championed the three-martini lunch, an American rite of passage. Hemingway, though, was more romantic. I loved martinis, I loved Hemingway (who cares about Ford, really?), and I loved doing ridiculous things on Saturday afternoons, on my own. So here they were, three one-ounce perfections, a twist, an onion, and an olive.

I was sipping my second when she made her move. “Excuse me, do you mind if I sit?” Her voice hoarse, a smoker from decades past. I smiled, nodded, gestured, gritting my internal teeth, actually, no, I’m writing in my journal, can’t you see? But who was I kidding? I had time for her. “I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet a woman who can take on gin before three pm.” I looked up, actually tilted my face, now, seeing her eyes for the first time. Deep brown, chocolaty almost, ironic, incisive, and sparkling, yes I know, a cliché, but I had never, before now, seen someone’s eyes truly sparkle.

I was thrown. “Say, where’s your husband, darling?” She didn’t even shift her gaze from mine, didn’t look at the ridiculously large diamond on my finger. Her voice, underneath the deep husk, was smooth, direct. A singer’s voice. I smiled again (yes, I smile a lot; it’s disarming and I like the upper hand). “He’s in Midtown,” I hear myself saying. “Waiting for me, actually. I’m late.” She snorted a conspiratorial laugh. I hadn’t meant to say it, she knew that. It was the twist talking. “You stood up your husband for a drink? My, my, I thought we’d have a lot in common…”

She asked about my accent, asked about my husband, asked about my life, my tastes, my desires. And I told her everything. Me. Usually the grand deflector, the one who holds the brief on everyone else, cards firmly to my breast. The afternoon seemed unreal, suddenly, like a dream, like a story, a narrative beyond my control, and I thought to myself, who is this woman, this woman who has disarmed me?

Out on the street I wrapped my scarf tight beneath my chin, felt the trailing end float behind me as I turned my head to cross the street. I ran through the cold, bright, ringing streets, ran west to my husband in Midtown, heels tapping clear on the grimed pavement. People stopped to watch me pass, cheeks flushed, and I was filled with a wondrous, ethereal awe of the world. Call me, she’d said, and she made me write her number down. A landline, I smiled, she was too proud for anything less. I thought of her smile, that direct, no bullshit smile, and the sparkling eyes and I thought,

I will.

Elise Janes