The single-sex Shakespeares keep on coming. Hot on the heels of Propeller's Dream and multiple summer of 'regime change' outings at the Globe comes this American version of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet. It's getting so that I can scarcely remember what it's like to have a mixed cast.
Joe Calarco's rendering of Shakespeare's R&J does have some method behind the casting. By setting the world's most famous romance in a repressive boys' boarding school, Calarco draws parallels between the authority the school represents and the parental authority that Juliet must bow towards. But he goes further. Here, illicit love arises not from the enmity between two warring factions but between two schoolboys coming to terms with their sexuality.
Four uniformed pupils - Matthew Sincell, Jason Michael Spelbring, Jeremy Beck and Jason Dubin - find a copy of the bard's text and act it out, using the play's eroticism as a cover for their own emerging desires. It's an intriguing concept and some parts work pretty well. The brutality with which the other two separate the doting couple, for example, admirably reflects the dislike that boys have for those who dare to be different.
There is, however, one major drawback: with sections relating to the Montague-Capulet feud understated, the production centres solely on the secret love affair. That, of course, is the original's central theme, but such added focus means that the Mercutio/Tybalt scenes are dealt with rather cursorily and that Juliet's mixed emotions on hearing of the latter's death are inadequately conveyed.
Even more bizarrely, Calarco shoehorns into Shakespeare's R&J several Shakespeare sonnets and chunks of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's never quite made clear why. Are we really supposed to conclude that these nocturnal episodes have simply been a dream, a schoolboy fantasy? If so, it seems an unsatisfactory ending.
While the actors do an admirable job of conveying the trials of adolescent infatuation, they're less assured when it comes to verse. Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare's most poetic plays (unusually, even the servants speak in verse), and too many speeches are handled as if they were rap tracks. The one exception is the actor who portrays Tybalt and the Nurse (unhelpfully, the programme doesn't name who handles which part) who displays more of a flair for the phrasing than his peers.
Though Calarco's version of Shakespeare's tale does seem to wield more genuine passion than most (certainly more so than the limp versions the RSC and RNT have given us in recent years), as it's abbreviated title implies, it's more like Romeo and Juliet Lite - an acceptable version perhaps, but one that leaves us hungry for the real thing.