Shakespeare's R&J

Monday, 8 September, 2003
Review by: 
Alan Bird

Director Joe Calarco has adapted Romeo & Juliet by taking the text and snipping away at its edges and weaving in a sonnet here and an extract -from Midsummer Night’s Dream- there, and adding a few twists of his own to the plot. On top of this his adaptation consists of a play within a play.

The play concerns four boys who appear to attend a catholic military school. The opening scene has the boys marching with exaggerated movements around the stage as if being frogmarched from one lesson to the next. They sit to attention as they recite conjunctives of Latin verbs to drill, and we observe them kneel in the confessional asking for penance and promising never to sin again. They escape the school discipline by sneaking out of bed to read a copy of Romeo and Juliet, which appears to be prohibited material. Through the text they enter the forest of their imagination and discover the forbidden yearnings of romance, desire and teenage rebellion.

I had difficulties with the age of the actors, they did not look as if they could pass much younger then sixteen and they looked considerably older. Was the Bard the most salacious material that they could find? And would it hold such fascination for them considering their initial interest in the text? If this was an act of teenage rebellion then these catholic schoolboys were more than just suppressed. I can remember as a youngster poring over a Bible with my pals and giggling over the Songs of Solomon, or at the story of Onan spilling his seed, and we were considerably younger than sixteen!

A further difficulty was the haste with which the actors gallop through the plot, teenage enthusiasm is fine, but for the audience it feels like a bombardment of words, an avalanche of dialogue. The play, for those not familiar with Romeo and Juliet, may well prove confusing because the four schoolboys act the many different characters whilst dressed in the same school uniforms, the speed with which it is performed only adds to that confusion. For these reasons it was not always immediately apparent when one of the boys had assumed the role of a new character. Also I found the scene in which Juliet was beaten, if not raped, for refusing to marry Paris, perplexing. Not being aware of anything in the script of Romeo and Juliet that would imply such an act, I was left wondering why four suppressed schoolboys would have dreamt of the idea.

We observe the boys mature from giggling pupils as they first begin to read the text to strong Shakespearean actors, with this transformation we also see them make their first tentative steps into the confusing world of sexuality, romance and infatuation. In the morning, three of the boys are able to return to their school discipline, whilst one has now matured into an individual.

The play has run successfully off-Broadway and has now made its West End debut at the Arts Theatre. An American cast of four young actors, Matthew Sincell, Jeremy Beck, Jason Dubin and Jason Michael Spelbring bring energy and enthusiasm to the script. With only the aid of a wooden box, two chairs and a sheet of red cloth they bring the bard’s tragedy to life. The diction of all four actors is remarkable, despite the speed of the performance every word is clearly pronounced.

A confusing production! If the boys appeared younger and the speed slowed down, one could well believe that these boys were discovering their manhood within the text of Romeo and Juliet, as it is, it fails to work for me!

Alan Bird

Next review by Tom Keatinge

Sep 2003

Romeo & Juliet, or rather in the case of the current production directed by Joe Calarco at the Arts Theatre, R&J set in an all-boys school, provides the potential for a different perspective on the popular Shakespearian tragedy. For the writer, this was of particular interest being as he is, the product of eleven years at all-boys boarding schools. Performed by four American actors (Matthew Sincell, Jason Michael Spellbring, Jeremy Beck and Jason Dubin), we are provided with a very brief insight into their school life, as the production opens with small snippets from their classroom routine. Then, one night they discover a copy of R&J, hidden away in a dormitory, which they begin to read and act out. The acting is energetic, and the play moves swiftly from scene to scene, with the actors moving intelligently and artfully from one role to another without ever losing sight of the fact that they are school boys at play. They look for opportunities to play up (their portrayal of mother and nurse is particularly childish), they demonstrate their innocence of love and women, and throughout, they remain alert to the possibility of discovery by a member of staff. It is entertaining, it is charming, and it is one of the more original and refreshing interpretations that I have ever seen, yet despite all this, there is something sadly pretentious about this production, which leads to a sorry feeling of dissatisfaction.

According to the programme’s Dramaturgical Notes, “in R&J, the boys experiment with adulthood through fantasy, or by playing”. The notes continue “specifically, this play shows the boys’ experiment with manhood. They’re testing the boundaries, literal physical boundaries, as they touch, kiss, and shove”, as “the boarding school simmers with impending violence”… This is where this whole production falls down for me. On the face of it, it is a well acted, intelligently directed piece that provides an interesting and lively interpretation of Shakespeare’s work. But that is clearly as far as it goes, as the characters of the school boys are never given time to develop outside the Shakespearian characters they portray in this play within a play. So, to suggest, as the notes do, that there is any more to this production than simply an MTV-age representation is a needless exaggeration, and one which for me, ultimately detracted from the excitement of the piece itself.

R&J has much to recommend it; it is one of the best “remakes” I have ever seen, it is full of energy, it is inventive and brings vivid life to the famous love story, but do not hope for a voyage of school boy discovery, for you will leave disappointed.

(Tom Keatinge)

What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says of the four young actors, "They are magical. They are sensational." And says the production is a "knock-out". MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Joe Calarco....limits rather than expands the play's possibilities." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "A youthful blast of bardophilia." CHARLES SPENCER for DAILY TELEGRAPH says, " Calarco's ingenious, urgent and wonderfully atmospheric."

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Guardian
The Times
Daily Telegraph

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