POSTED: 01 JULY 2010

Shakespeare's R&J, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Joe Calarco

Riverside Productions | Seymour Centre, Chippendale, Sydney | Until 3 July*

I must admit that when I first heard of Shakespeare’s R&J, I had visions of Dead Poets Society, which also deals with teenage male angst and the exploration of life through discovering classical literature.

But vast differences are quickly apparent.

For a start, R&J doesn’t have a Robin Williams type of figure leading the way with an experienced literary lantern. These boys are on their own.

Also, the script for R&J must be a good 90-plus per cent Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet text, with the play’s creator, American Joe Calarco, adding just enough to round out the context and to place the quartet of actors in his chosen setting.

That setting is a repressive Catholic senior boys’ boarding school, just about anywhere and anytime, though hopefully not in this century. The four lads (Julian Curtis, Ben Gerard, Garth Holcombe and Tom Stokes) have been regimented, stifled, frustrated, bored shitless, you could almost say institutionalised.

When they find a forbidden fruit, a dog-eared copy of Romeo and Juliet, they can’t resist temptation and immerse themselves in their own, clandestine, very private performance.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as the promotional claim of it being “testosterone-pumped”, but there’s certainly sexual awakening and arousal. It’s a bit like going to a dramatised reading of Shakespeare’s original but with the readers more than a little edgy about what they’re going to uncover.

Director Craig Ilott and stage designer Nicholas Dare have effectively relied on the very basic: not much more than four chairs, some torches and Joe Calarco’s bolt of bright-red cloth that can at times provocatively entwine the actors, at others be used to simulate a sword fight.

I did have sympathy for sound designer Steve Toulmin. Is it just my aging ears, or is there something fundamentally limiting in the Seymour Centre York Theatre acoustics? And certainly on opening night there were technical problems with the sound system itself.

There is some wonderful, convincing acting in this courageous, left-field take on Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare aficionados will find plenty of interest. Novices will undoubtedly enjoy the performances and the drama, but with only bare knowledge of the original they might be left scratching their heads a little.

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*After its Seymour season, Shaekespeare's R&J will perform at Brisbane's Gardens Theatre, Queensland University of Technology, from 12–17 July.