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Shakespeare’s R & J

RIVERSIDE PRODUCTIONS AND PHIL BATHOLS present SHAKESPEARE’S R & J, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by Joe Calarco.

“In an exclusive boy’s boarding school, where students are forbidden to read Romeo and Juliet, four students put on a secret production of the play which brings violence, betrayal, lust, love and mortality into their own lives.”

This is an all male Romeo and Juliet set in this particular location to capture the sense of “sexual hysteria” that Mr Calarco believes the Shakespeare play, is, in many ways about. The adapter Joe Calarco goes on to say in his notes to his text: “Put those boys in a school where Catholicism reigns, patriarchy rules, and where simply reading Shakespeare is forbidden, and you have a world pulsating with repressed hysteria. This is a play about men. It is about how men interact with other men. Thus it deals with how men view women, sex, sexuality, and violence……..The actors cast are not doing ROMEO AND JULIET. They are doing R & J therefore they are students first and foremost, students who are acting out ROMEO AND JULIET.”In this production I felt that Shakespeare’s R & J was performed primarily as a study aid for schools. The reading of the Shakespeare play is generally first rate. If one were studying the play this production is cogent and engaging. The play that the adapter Mr Calarco has attempted is very much unfocused or neglected. There is a general sweep of staging but a real neglect of the undertow of the adapter’s intention. The directing of the school scenes have a feeling of secondary interest to the Director (Craig Ilott). They have a sense of a musical theatre style of choral presentation without any nuance of the delicate development of the awakening that the boys are having as their exploration of the play continues. They tend to stomp and (worse) shout their way through sequences of the play rather than dealing with the growing dilemma that the performance confronts each of the students, personally, with. For instance the reading of Act two Scene six: “The Wedding”, causes several of the boys to rebel. “But my true love is grown to such excess….” One of them snatches the book away and after a violent chase rips a page from the script and tears it to pieces. Bewildered as how to move the scene forward to its intention: a wedding vow (and the Friar’s fear of an overhasty consummation before the vows, reflected in their love intensity!!), without the Romeo and Juliet text, the students playing Romeo and Juliet improvise two remembered sonnets as substitutes for the torn text and thwart the censoring that the other student had attempted. It is a wonderful moment of discovery, invention and growth for all the boys. A turning point. Mr Ilott has barely staged it let alone explicated it for the audience. Later it was a puzzle for most of the audience, when I saw it last Saturday matinee, as to what was happening when Student 3 and 4 throw Student 1 to the ground punching and kicking him. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had so dominated the directing and the acting that when Joe Calarco’s R&J came bursting through into the play’s action, not enough sense of it could be grasped by the audience.

The Set designed simply by Nicholas Dare: a semi-circle of wooden planks, a trunk with props and four chairs and an amateurishly built shield (suggesting the school’s rehearsal hall??) suspended above the space serves adequately for the play as indicated by the writer. The lighting is, however, rudimentarily atmospheric and not always useful in assisting us to see what is happening between the boys. Colour and shadows dominating the result. The music score is very telling and supportive to the Romeo and Juliet play. Composer is Nick Wales. It is very beautiful and sensitive to the atmosphere of the Shakespeare play but as to the R & J play the writer is fairly clear about his wish for the sounds to be mostly created by the “Boys” and so it seems the director has further undermined the writer’s intention by romanticising or sentimentalising the experience with a score. There is some very simple and beautiful physical moments. eg. The Capulet Ball, danced to a beautiful tune with the four chairs by the actors. The use of the swathe of red cloth for the sword fighting and other inventions are very simple and effective. Sam Chester and Kyle Rowling are accredited for this production contribution.

The actors handle the Shakespeare very well indeed. The other play, the “R & J”, depends on the actors skills to seizing the opportunity when able. Will O’Mahony playing Student 2, who gets to play Juliet, is quite marvellous and affecting. The nuance of his playing is delicate and sensitive. The vocal work is unstrained and clear in his handling of the poetry; the physical choices are never exaggerated for story telling clarity. He has the best sense of the subterranean Calarco play. Ben Gerrard as Student 1, playing a multitude of characters including the Friar, Lady Capulet and Mercutio handles the language and detail of characterisation well. Both Paul-William Mawhinney and Andrew Ryan had either colds or injured voices at the matinee performance and tended to use volume rather than range / pitch to achieve communication. Andrew Ryan has a very powerful and rich inner clown urging his work, however, his physical delineation of the Nurse for example is first choice stuff and with straight forearms and over use of limp wrists too vulgar and unnecessarily camp. Cheap laughs rather than more considered work.

Shakespeare’s play originally written for an all male cast is surprisingly forceful with this all male cast. The strength of the female characters, Juliet, The Nurse and Lady Capulet have a focused energy/power about them in contrast to the usual casting where the roles when played by women are romanticised or sentimentalised. (There is a play by Nicholas Wright: CRESSIDA about the Boy actors of Shakespeare’s period. It is worth a read if you enjoyed this all male ROMEO AND JULIET.)