saturday 2nd august 2008
by joe calarco
the original theatre company
Produced by The Original Theatre Company and South Hill Park Arts Centre with Max Lewendel
Directed by Alastair Whatley
Designed by Victoria Spearing
Lighting by Alan Valentine
Costume by Fiona Davis
Student one (plays Romeo) ......... Christopher Hogben
Student Two (plays Juliet and Benvolio) ..... Tom Hackney
Student Three (plays Mercutio, Lady Capulet and Friar Lawrence) ..... Craig Gilbert
Student Four (plays Tybalt, Balthasar and The Nurse) ............. Sam Donnelly
Set in the 1950’s at an exclusive boarding school, four pupils run into the chapel late one night in a bid to escape from their repressive school routines and begin reading the story aloud. School and social rules are addressed and shattered as the students come to understand the real price of challenging fate and the true dangers of forbidden love.
As both the stories of Romeo and Juliet and the four lads unfold during the course of one thrilling evening; audience and actors alike discover the power of theatre and the new worlds it can open up. Highly energetic, physical and packed with the energy of youth and beauty of Shakespeare language this really is Shakespeare at his most accessible and daring.
at southwark playhouse
Even before it starts we hear a soundtrack of latin conjugations; a master teaching Shakespeare's sonnets; singing 'Jerusalem' ...
It then starts with three of the boys in vestments praying and wafting incense. Arriving late comes the boy who will instigate the play and play romeo - not sure why? - although the play will finish with the same three boys rushing off to resume their school lives perhaps unchanged by their experience of making the play leaving the same fourth boy alone and deeply affected by what has happened.
There is then a bit of setting up business between the boys that never really gets explained or goes anywhere and so felt an unnecessary prologue. Altho now i remember that it does again make the distinction between the three and the one, and so with hindsight and much reflection i am seeing the undertow of the boys' stories as a coming out for the loner boy who plays romeo. Even though this works against the sense of ensemble created from the four boys making the whole play together? So a confusing effect that is just possibly deliberate - if we allow that this confusion of un/belonging is so much a part of a queer arrival out into the world?)
Anyway - eventually we go from a night time torch-lit boys' escapade into the playing of the play - although even allowing for a 1950s world requires a fairy hefty leap of faith in accepting the acting out of romeo and juliet as the best dare-devilish idea the boys could conceive!
The programme notes say that this is a way to see one of Shakespeare's most famous plays with fresh eyes and to some large extent it does just that. Watching four 1950s public school lads play all the roles means most particularly that the love scenes between romeo and juliet have a very fresh rawness and ache to them and the queer love that emerges between the two boys playing r & j has the same force of forbidden love as the original lovers faced. And the violence is often strikingly savage - even appearing to get out of hand and with a real viciousness about it - especially the kicking of juliet after she is told of tybalt's death and romeo's banishment.
But unfortunately despite the strong energy and determined playing of all four actors this play is just too problematic and mixed up between the most of it that is Shakespeare and the undercurrent that is a more confusing story of the boys to really fly. We're supposed to see romeo actually fall in love with the boy who plays juliet and this reciprocated except that their kisses - lacking the urgent realness and over-the-edgeness that the violence has - come across as stage kissing and so miss being genuinely challenging.
The show ends with the romeo actor alone onstage abandoned by all of his friends who have fled to back to class "I dreamed... I dreamed... I dreamed ..." so maybe it is that we are have been shown the moment of one boy's queer awakening rather than two boys falling in love?
Part of its freshness and energy comes from their making of the play from the materials to hand. Set in a chapel these are the pews variously arranged and a white sheet that serves from an altar cloth to a way of fighting as well as a variety of drapes
The music and lighting effects are simple and effective.
The actors are committed and sincere.
A lot about it I would expect to like a lot.
But all this did not a thrilling experience make.
Perhaps it is partly because of recently seeing the factory's “hamlet” which does much of this freshness but with a much greater edginess because you know they are making it fresh each time in each new space they find themselves in - although they have no intention to tell any simultaneous story about the actors.
Also I think the direction needed to give us more moments of ambiguity: are we seeing the actor playing the scene or are we seeing the actor revealed through their playing out the scene?
Still this is a very immediate experience that was easy to stay involved and engaged in, and maybe they want us to remain unsure about what we are witnessing.
And they make the best use of the southwark playhouse space I've so far seen.
So ... ?
I continue to vacillate between wanting to love it and finding it disappointing short of the mark and then wanting to value what it could be shooting for and then finding it disappointingly short of the mark…
I imagine this would be a great play for a [brave] student production but I am left wishing this professional production had dared go just that little bit further.