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Shakespeare's R&J

Shakespeare's R&J

Joe Calarco

26 Jan - 2 Feb 2013

Chris Weber-Brown

A group of schoolgirls are enchanted by reading Romeo & Juliet.


Performances

Sat 7:45pm, Mon 7:45pm, Tue 7:45pm, Wed 7:45pm, Thu 7:45pm, Fri 7:45pm, Sat 2:45pm, Sat 7:45pm

Synopsis

Shakespeare's R & J is set in a 1950s girls boarding school where everything is strict and regimented and where many books and plays are banned as being considered unsuitable for young ladies.

When lessons are over, one of the girls produces a copy of Romeo & Juliet and, tentatively at first, the begin reading. Slowly the play takes on a dreamlike quality at the girls not only throw away the script but also throw off their shackles ans start performing scenes from the play for real.

Gradually it takes a hold on them and culminates in the final death scene of the two lovers. Finally, the dream is over and the girls reluctantly return to their previous existence.

Review

Joe Calarco's 1990s award winning reworking of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was originally written to be performed by young actors. This would have echoed the Shakespearean theatre world in which young boys often performed the female parts. Calarco adds another layer by using that device because it strengthens the intrinsic forbidden love theme of Romeo and Juliet for a modern day audience. In this production Chris Weber-Brown uses a cast of young actresses which, although possibly making it less of a muscular and earthy experience, nevertheless does highlight the pathos and pain of a love that dare not speak its name. It also accentuates the place of young women trying to find an identity in an adult world.

Set in the 1950s in a girl’s Catholic school, the suffocating constrictions and conventions echo the forbidden emotions, yearnings and conflict of Romeo and Juliet's teenage lives. So a parallel is drawn between the school's control and the parental control that Juliet has to obey. But more than that, in this play, illicit love arises not from the hatred between two families but between two school girls coming to terms with their sexuality. The school girls find a copy of Shakespeare's text and act it out, using the play's eroticism as a cover for their own emerging desires. At the beginning and end of the play Calarco weaves in some Shakespeare sonnets and speeches from A Midsummer Night's Dream. This highlights the wish fulfilment for a more open, free flowing environment, and hints at the intoxicating element which is so much part of teenage fantasies and imaginative life.

The satisfyingly plain black box set by Gerry Cortese, embellished only by the religious school emblem projected on the backcloth, set up the austerity of the school environment and served Calarco's aim of stripping back Romeo and Juliet to the simplicity of its central emotional core. The six actresses, all in their regulation grey sexless school uniforms and scraped back hair, were the perfect embodiment of girls on the cusp of womanhood. The act of taking off their ties and jumpers at the start of the second half appropriately ramped up the energy and drive of the passion of the play as it develops.

This cast of six young actresses were chosen from a number of girls from various schools and colleges who attended a series of workshops studying this play during the summer at LLT. Chris Weber-Brown then started rehearsing with them in November. The time and commitment put in by both director and cast was very apparent. Unfortunately, when I saw the production on Monday night the theatre was not very full (possibly due to terrible weather) but despite that, the cast did not drop their attention or energy levels at all. Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most poetic plays - even the servants speak poetically - and it is a big ask for any actor. The cast made good sense and use of the verse in a way that would have been impossible if they had not had full control of the meaning. Proving the point that Shakespeare is not an intellectual art all about perfect diction or a perceived RSC/BBC accent, but that it is about intent and inhabiting the life of the characters through the richness of the language.

This production is a truly ensemble piece where, even when not performing, all the cast are present on stage watching the action. Therefore there is nowhere to hide. The generosity and support of the cast for their fellow performers was palpable.

This was a refreshing and worthwhile choice for LLT. It was presented by truthful, intelligent and hardworking actresses led by their director, Chris Weber-Brown, with care and clarity. And yes, it did freshen up my Romeo and Juliet experience. Calarco's careful reworking vividly brings to life the universal truths of Shakespeare's play with added resonance for today's world. As we left the theatre the audience were very appreciative of the work of these 21st Century actresses and their director.

Lucie Fitchett