Love story cut to the quick and poignant
Schools from Ayr, Airdrie, Paisley and Glasgow bussed pupils to the Glasgow Theatre Royal last week to see Shakespeare's R amp; J, the adaptation by New Yorker Joe Calarco that ran for a year in his native city before winning plaudits at the Bath Shakespeare Festival and London's West End last year.
Calarco cleverly recharges the danger and youthful passion of the original by setting the play in an oppressive Catholic seminary, a boot camp of an institution where the boys march from classroom to classroom, to recite Latin verbs and Euclidian theorems, and to confession, where all they have to atone for are their secret thoughts of love and lust.
After lights out in the dormitory, however, four boys have a prize to share, an illicit copy of Romeo and Juliet. It is held aloft like a talisman and then tossed around the quartet like a hand-grenade as the boys read and then act the roles, igniting the play and their own, unfolding capacities for love, friendship and malice.
With nothing more than two chairs, a box, a length of blood-red cloth and the book, the four actors give all of the play that matters, with a couple of sonnets and some Midsummer Night's Dream for make-weights. This minimalist approach creates the splendid paradox of the production, that less is more.
Faced with four young men in school uniform, hurtling through the scenes, abridging the action and sharing the roles, the audience has to listen for dear life, rather like the audience Shakespeare wrote for, in fact, in a theatre where men played the women, used little or no scenery and where the words were paramount.
The overwhelming extra dimension of this production is its physicality. The performance has all the restless energy and horseplay of adolescent boys, though with a split-second precision and finesse that sometimes makes you catch your breath.
The performers, almost like a quartet of dancers who can act rather than actors who can dance, change the direction of the play with a snap of fingers and cut from scene to scene at television speed, a tempo that young audiences have been weaned on. At this speed, the four bring off their "two hours' traffic of the stage", including the interval, with minutes to spare.
As the play accelerates to its desolate finale, the more involved and committed the schoolboys are to its resolution. In effect, the boys become actors, totally absorbed in their roles.
Clearly the play is the thing and it is Shakespeare's, not Calarco's. There may be a play to be written where the boys are individuals and relate to one another on a personal level as well as characters in a play, but this is not it.
One effect of this is that the kissing and romping is played out with exactly the same simple, honest zeal as the fighting. If there was an ambiguity about this in the context of a boys' school, then the Theatre Royal audience had no problem accepting it, possibly because the school, the boys and the play are all metaphors to communicate three propositions few in the theatre would contest: that the humanities in education should never be neglected, that Shakespeare is a good thing and that, in the old phrase, all you really need for theatre is two boards and a passion.