Cut to the quick

16th February 1996 at 00:00
To present a viable production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in one and a half hours, with six recently-trained actors and a portable set, was the tall order facing Andrew Jarvis when he accepted the commission to direct the current Shakespeare in Education schools tour.

Eight years with the RSC and four with the English Shakespeare Company have given Jarvis a healthy respect for Shakespeare's texts: "Experience has taught me there is nothing wasteful in Shakespeare," he says.

"If lines aren't necessary for the narrative they're there for our better understanding of a character or a theme. So I knew cutting would be painful, but I was determined not just to 'tell the story' but also retain some of the texture of the play".

That frequent victim of the director's knife, the Apothecary, remains, as Jarvis feels that Romeo's comments on his abject poverty and his: "I sell thee poison, thou hast sold me none", are a vital insight into this money-worshipping society. In shortened form, this small scene played front-stage with the body of Juliet lying in the shadows behind is very powerful.

Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is also retained, an essential facet of this complex man, as is Friar Lawrence's musing over the qualities of plants and herbs.

Jarvis underlines the theme of materialism in the last scene, often played in deep remorse from Capulet and Montague. Here it becomes a stiff-necked contract each party vying with the other over the size and opulence of their monument.

The doubling of actors also posed problems which Jarvis has tackled successfully: "I decided we had to be honest and admit this is not the naturalism of film or TV; we're actors in a theatre. So we have three tailor's dummies at the back of the stage and as characters come in they take the appropriate costume and put it on". The three young bucks, Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio, are played by young women, in slim, dark trousers, white shirts and sharp waistcoats, their hair tied back. It gives a frisson of bi-sexuality to these characters reminiscent of the highly-bred young men of Renaissance paintings.

Jarvis admits to working hard on the language with these recent graduates from Birmingham Theatre School and, though there's not a great vocal range or subtlety to be heard, the meaning behind the words is clear and in the shortened playing time there's a real sense of the characters' headlong gallop towards tragedy.

Anne FitzGerald Tours in Warwicks, Leics, Derbyshire, Staffs, HerefordWorcs, Northants, Shrops, until May 21. Riverside Studios, London June 4. Enquiries: 0121 440 8772

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