There are, it’s sometimes said, only seven plots in existence. If that’s true, one of them – love across the divide – is epitomised by Romeo and Juliet. It’s the classic tale not only of enemies being lovers, but of children being thrust into the violent, bloody, tragic world of adulthood before their time.
Writer/director Joe Calarco’s new adaptation, transferring from New York for a limited run at the Arts Theatre, accentuates the theme of premature adulthood by relocating the drama to an American boarding school with more than a little echo of Dead Poets Society.
Four schoolboys rebel from days full of confession, conjugation and social etiquette by reading some proscribed Shakespeare after lights out. Starting by finding innuendo in many of the lines (admittedly not a difficult thing with the Bard), things take a more serious turn with the first fight scene, and even more so with the first appearance of Juliet. Not for this all-male production a simpering thirteen-year-old: while the initial appearances of the nurse and mother start off as camp pastiches, when the ‘heroine’ arrives there’s a sign that these four students are beginning to take their roles more seriously.
What follows has all the promise of an intense studio performance: with minimal props (a couple of chairs, a book and a bolt of red silk) and the bare minimum of cast, there are some extremely powerful scenes – but it’s Shakespeare rather than Calarco we have to thank for those. While the framing device of having a quartet of schoolboys perform the play throws some extra frisson into the developing passion of the star cross’d lovers (are they acting? Or are the two pupils developing feelings for each other?) there are all too many times where the framing device intrudes.
While all four actors (Matthew Sincell, Jason Michael Spelbring, Jeremy Beck and Jason Dubin) never break from character, their characters themselves do. By necessity, when ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’ face opprobrium from their fellow students after their romance is discovered, the same actors have to shift from being disgusted with them to being their best friends in a trice.
The play-within-a-play setting, the theme of loves discovered at night, of identities assumed and discarded, don’t sit well with the intrinsic tragedy of possibly the most tragic of all plays. They’d be far more suitable for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – indeed, throughout Shakespeare’s R+J there are allusions to the latter, including a well-realised reworking of Puck’s ‘if we shadows have offended’ epilogue. Strip the artifice away, though, and you would have the makings of a truly great play – a contemporary-dress, all-male, minimal-cast telling of the fearful passage of a death-mark’d love.
Now that would be a play worth seeing.
• Originally published by Gay.com UK (link no longer available)