Shakespeare’s R&J @ Southwark Playhouse, London

cast list
Christopher Hogben
Tom Hackney
Craig Gilbert
Sam Donnelly

directed by
Alistair Whatley
Joe Calarco’s reworking of Romeo and Juliet takes this over-familiar but endlessly resonant story of doomed young love and sets it in a 1950s boarding school, dividing all the roles between a cast of four young men.

The play first surfaced off Broadway in the late 1990s and has been revived frequently since; now it comes to London’s Southwark Playhouse care of the Original Theatre Company. Tucked under the arches of London Bridge station, the brick walled Southwark Playhouse seems a particularly well suited space. In Calarco’s intriguing take on the play, the boarding school boys have sneaked out of their dorms and taken refuge in a darkened chapel where they recite Shakespeare’s verse to one another into the night. It takes only a few well placed pews and some tin-foil stained glass windows, plus a subtle whiff of incense, to transform this murky room into something suitably church-like.

There is little in the way of character development or backstory. The play is very much the thing here and the bulk of the dialogue is Shakespeare’s. One of the boys has a prized copy of Romeo and Juliet and it is from this they read, though the lines are already as engrained on their memories as the Latin exercises they are forced to regurgitate daily. But what starts as a game, as a means of escape from a regimented world, becomes more intense as the night progresses, the boy’s playfulness gives way to something more darker and deeply felt, and their wrestling and rough-housing becomes more aggressive as the play takes hold of them.

This touring production bubbles over with energy. Blazers were cast off, ties flung aside and crisp white shirts were soon smeared with sweat and grime as they attacked the bard’s words, and at times, each other. Indeed, the young cast threw themselves into the play with such a degree of physicality that you feared for their knees on the theatre’s rough concrete floor. Alistair Whatley’s production rather overdid this sense of aggression and conflict, in the first half at least, making it too overt. There was so much scuffling and tripping and kicking that the play itself was in danger of being overwhelmed. It was too noisy; it boiled where it would have been better off simmering, subtlety and emotional nuance sacrificed as a result. After the interval a little more restraint was exercised with rewarding results. Whatley created some unsettling scenes. Juliet’s lambasting by her father morphed into an unpleasant hazing ritual, with the boys ganging up on one of their own.

In the context of Calarco’s play, the recital of Shakespeare’s lines inevitably becomes a conduit for emerging sexuality, something that, again, becomes more overt in the second half, with Christopher Hogben’s Romeo and Tom Hackney’s Juliet clinging to one another, unwilling to let the game end.

There is humour in the production too, with Sam Donnelly’s depiction of the nurse as a malevolent crone fond of battering her young charge, particularly entertaining. The production works best when it finds echoes of the youth and confusion of these young men in the text (Dead Poets Society is an obvious reference point).

Though Romeo and Juliet would have originally been staged with men in the female roles, Calarco, while adding seemingly little to the play, brings the theme of emerging sexuality and identity to the fore. This fast-paced production honours that intention without overstating things.

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