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A CurtainUp Review
Shakespeare's R & J

Love goes towards love as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

--- Romeo
Shakespeare's R & J
Jason Michael Spelbring and Jeremy Beck (seated) and Matthew Sincell
(Photo: Robert Day)
Joe Calarco's take on Romeo and Juliet, set in an all male boarding school and played by just four boys, ran for a year in New York (for review of that production go here. It now finds itself revived in London after an outing at the Bath Shakespeare Festival.

Presumably the 1998 New York cast have long since matured past the stage when they could play teenagers and a new cast of young American actors takes on the roles. The interpretation is relevant because these students are experimenting with trying on the ideas of romantic love through the medium of Shakespeare's verse in this play about adolescent lovers. Set in an oppressive and Roman Catholic institution, hopefully no longer extant in the twenty first century, where extra-curricular books are banned, the boys manage to express themselves using Shakespeare's words.

In a remarkable acting feat, four performers take on all the roles with a bolt of red cloth the only aid to costume. Using physical theatre and beautifully spoken verse, we come to believe in young Romeo and his Juliet, in Lady Capulet and the Nurse. Of course the crowd scenes are more difficult to create with a cast of just four and maybe the Tybalt-Mercutio fight to the death does not work as well for that reason.

The subtext is a homoerotic one as boys learn to kiss each other and display a tenderness of feeling, exploring emotion and romance through role play and acting with each other. Some of the humour too is engendered by the audience's embarrassment at these situations.

Calarco has inserted into the text some contemporary sources, books of social etiquette on male and female roles maybe from the 1930s or 1950s advising girls to find the kind of man who belongs to a club. This practical manual contrasts nicely with his other poetic insertions, some of Shakespeare's sonnets, the two most famous, 18, "Shall I compare thee to a summers day . . ." and 116, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds . . . ". There are also children's rhymes about kissing as the boys examine all the information about romance from their past.

When Mercutio makes his Queen Mab speech, at first the boys are spooked, then bolstered by group bravado they become derisory. What is most interesting is the dynamic by which each schoolboy starts to merge with his role in the play, the two not playing Romeo and Juliet almost bristle with jealousy at the involvement of the other two. This culminates with a near hijacking of the marriage ceremony as Romeo and Juliet have to wait to take their vows while the other two interrupt with a sonnet. As the scene in Juliet's bedchamber is lit with numerous little candles, the cast have to extinguish them hurriedly at the announcement of the arrival of the senior Capulets, like naughty children caught in a guilty act. Sometimes the small cast calls for one actor's quick segue between contrasting roles, for instance the clever switch from Nurse to Tybalt.

The performances are very good with Matthew Sincell's Romeo looking like a younger version of Kyle MacLachlan and Jason Michael Spelbring's tender and delicate Juliet showing a touching vulnerability. The night I saw R&J, a school party of seventeen year olds obviously appreciated the youth centred adaptation and were involved and animated as they discussed it. What more could any teacher of English Literature ask for? This is a fresh and lively interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and well worth catching.
Shakespeare's R & J
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Joe Calarco

With: Matthew Sincell, Jason Michael Spelbring, Jeremy Beck, Jason Dubin
Set Designer: Michael Fagin
Costume Designer: Amela Baksic
Lighting Designer: Chris Lee
Sound Designer: Brian Keating
Running time: Two hours ten minutes with one interval.
Box Office: 020 7836 3334
Booking to 18th October 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th September 2003 Performance at the Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street London (Tube Station: Leicester Square)
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