Shakespeare's R&J

posted 01 October 2003

So I want to see Shakespeare's R&J with Mary and Afonso tonight. I thought I'd blog about it, since it was excellent and I haven't seen a single review on the web that accurately explains why it's so good. SPOILERS GALORE, so if you have a chance of seeing this play in real life (it runs until the 8th of November in London) you should probably stop now.

The plot

Or rather, the plots. The basic premise of the play is the story of four schoolboys at a very strict catholic private school, repressed and regimented all day, who find escape and release through a copy of Romeo and Juliet, which they act out nightly. Other reviewers seem to have got the idea that the book is banned at the school, which doesn't make much sense for the classical education a "public"* school provides. Simply, it is an activity after lights-out, and hence is illicit.

The boys initially giggle at every word in the play, and appear confused by the language and embarrassed by the emotions in it, as you would expect four schoolboys to be when confronted with archaic language and a story based around ancient social values. But soon they begin to get into the play, and their actions and words become charged with enthusiasm, wrestling and dancing and drumming on the furniture as they charge through the plot, eagerly rifling through the pages of the book to find out what happens next, laughing in sheer joy at the beauty of the words and the depth of the story.

But the plot of Shakespeare's play and the relationship of the boys soon becomes intermingled as the boys playing Romeo and Juliet themselves discover that the words of affection they read from the pages echo deeper feelings they have for each other. As the play continues the perspective constantly shifts; some scenes are Romeo and Juliet, some are the boys themselves, and some are both at the same time, each line having two different and simultaneous meanings. The boys court and snipe and retaliate and reconcile, all the while using Shakespeare's words and Shakespeare's plot.

By the end of the play they have visibly matured, and while the lovers remain star-crossed in both Shakespeare's play and R&J which contains it, R&J leaves you with the feeling that there is a glimmer of hope, and that something has been gained.

The play

I have never heard Shakespeare like this. The enthusiasm of the actors for both plays simply cannot be faked. I often find when listening to Shakespeare that I have to take a step back from the language and not try to understand every word, just getting the general flow of the plot. Not here: every word and every line is charged with emotion and meaning; the actors spit out nearly every word loaded with emotion. It's Shakespeare so powerfully acted that you really do cease to notice the language being used, and it seems the characters are just talking normally, when in fact they are sticking strictly to iambic pentameter. It sounds so easy, so natural that you find yourself trying to speak that way yourself as you walk out of the theatre.

The dual nature of the plot is stunning. The play flicks recklessly back and forth between the inner and outer plots, being one or the other or both without warning, managing not to become confusing while still leaving enough ambiguity in places to leave you wondering "is he just reading, or does he really mean that this time?" This constant double interpretation makes for riveting viewing, as does the sheer physical energy the actors pour into their parts: they are literally leaping from one end of the stage to the other, dancing around, playing tug of war with the bolt of red cloth which is one of the plays only props, just as you would expect excited schoolboys to do.

The play is full of powerful scenes. The scene where three of the boys gang up to play the single part of Juliet's towering father, delivering a rapid-fire monologue in alternating sequence and three-part harmony, is truly awesome. So too is one of the other boys' delicate confession of his own unrequited feelings for one of the amorous pair, and the reaction of the object of his affections, all while remaining in character and not breaking the plot of the inner play. The duels somehow manage to be exciting and dangerous while doing nothing more than playing tug of war with a strip of red cloth.

The analysis

Not only does the relationship and the jealousy of the other boys reacting to the blossoming relationship of the two playing Romeo and Juliet echo the tension between the Montague and Capulet houses, but their reactions echo the more general reaction of heterosexuals to the realities of homosexual relationships: their confusion and disgust ring true, but so does their eventual reconciliation and acceptance.

Other reviews and takes on the play are all over the web; more traditional theatre types (predictably) dislike it as a bastardization of the bard's work, while others rave about it. Place me firmly into the "rave" category. Many of the more critical reviewers have suggestions on what could be done to make the play better: and while I often agree that following their suggestions would make for a good play, they would also be different plays from this one. This is not an "adaptation" of Romeo and Juliet; Romeo and Juliet is simply a sub-plot within this play, which is much more than simply Shakespeare, and has a lot more to say than that ancient tragedy of star-crossed lovers.

* British private schools are called public schools. Don't ask me why. It makes no sense at all. Crazy country.

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