ArtSpoken & Reviews

Shakespeare's R&J

Robyn Sassen
09/24/2011 16:08:32

My View by Robyn Sassen: Joe Calarco's "R&J" revitalises this classic romantic tragedy with wisdom and acuity; it should be mandatory viewing for young theatregoers.

This astonishing production of “Romeo and Juliet” gives courage to local theatre. This quality of young Shakespeareans on our stages refutes any belief that work ethic and skill in South Africa is dwindling.

Its four-strong cast carries the timeless tragic love story of “Romeo and Juliet”, which over the years has been translated into every art medium imaginable, and consequently frequently hackneyed to pieces. Here it is revitalised with a freshness which will hold you spellbound for its 140 minutes. Like Abrahamse’s “Richard III”, which debuted at the Grahamstown Festival in 2010, this is a potted version of the original, structured as it is for a cast of more than 25. These four performers adapt themselves to a variety of roles and render the original a delicious story within a story.

It’s set in a traditional Catholic boys’ boarding school; the narrative unfolds as an illicit post-lights-out activity in the dormitory. Positioning it as such is a gesture of sheer brilliance, because not only does it become economically pragmatic; it is lent the exciting frisson of the forbidden for audience members who might be teenagers themselves, and hopefully will inject passion for Shakespeare into the imaginations of readers, a couple of years beyond Harry Potter.

Casting UCT-educated James MacGregor opposite Marcel Meyer as the two romantic leads is inspired. This tousle-headed youngster conveys a delightfully androgynous understanding of what an almost-14-year-old girl is like, particularly in contemporary times. There’s no coy understanding of drag here; what you get is as pure a Juliet as Diane Venora’s Hamlet under the direction of Joseph Papp in New York in 1982.

But further, “R&J” is sewn together with a choreographic understanding of set. You get a range of dynamics happening that takes the rude furniture of bunk beds, desks and blackboards, accessorised with knives nicked from the school’s dining hall, torches and clever lighting to create a truly memorable theatre environment, endearing as it sears with the veracity of emotions conveyed.

The original adapter of this classic, Joe Calarco, has done more than just look at one play, and you get fabulous pepperings of quotes from other sources, including “The Tempest” and the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote roughly concurrent with “Romeo and Juliet”. The understanding of the relevance of the drama to hormonal teenagers preoccupied with sex is carried through, even into the programme which contains faux doodles of the kind teenagers are wont to make in textbooks.

Ultimately, this immensely satisfying play is up there amongst the best this country has seen in a long while. Its focus on youthful relevance serves to highlight the tragedy conveyed by Shakespeare in 1595; its tight-knittedness lends it accessibility and mobility. It deserves packed house upon packed house.

“Shakespeare’s R&J” adapted from the original Romeo and Juliet by Joe Calarco and directed by Fred Abrahamse, is designed by Fred Abrahamse (lighting and set) and Marcel Meyer (costumes) and performed by Alistair Moulton Black, Rory Acton Burnell, James MacGregor and Marcel Meyer. It was part of the Main Festival in the National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown during 2011, and is currently performing at the Wits 969 festival, in the Main Theatre, until September 30 – 011 717 1380.

Robyn Sassen
011 023 8160
084 319 7844
Related Venue:
Wits Theatre Complex, Braamfontein Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa