Few theatrical set-pieces have been reduced to cliche as effectively as Romeo and Juliet. Through over-familiarity, the dialogue has become recitation, the interaction between characters a stolid pantomime. But a new production at the Arts Theatre, London reminds us that this is a play of firsts: first love, first hatred, and the first awakening of teenage lust.
Shakespeare's Ramp;J, performed by the New York-based Splinter Group, sets the tale of star-crossed lovers in an all-boys' Catholic boarding school.
By day, the boys are subjected to near-military regime, governed by bells and recitation. "Amo, amas, amat" is a grammatical conjunction, not an injunction to the soul. But, in their dormitory at night, they read from a copy of Romeo and Juliet kept hidden under the floorboards. Light reflecting from it like a contraband bible, the text illuminates their own lives.
Initially, their reading is a return to Shakespearean tradition. The four-strong, all-male cast take on both male and female roles. Juliet's nurse is played as a pantomime dame, while Juliet minces on to stage. But, as the play progresses, the two strands of the plot become increasingly intertwined. "Is Romeo dead?" Juliet asks, searching frantically through the text for the answer. Learning of Juliet's death, Romeo throws the book down, crying, "Then I defy you, stars". Is it the stars that he defies or the certainty of the written page?
This is not a traditional reading. As in many boarding schools, homoeroticism is the natural outlet for the boys' sexuality. And the text is cut liberally, interspersed with lines from alternative Shakespearean sources. But Romeo and Juliet is a play about teenagers, and it needs to appeal to teenagers. Ramp;J will provide an exciting viewing of the play, however many times you have seen it before.
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