The opening lines of Romeo and Juliet indicate, unusually, how long Shakespeare expected the play to last - although the projected "two hours' traffic of our stage" would have to be at a hell of a lick. Perhaps it was to tease the critics, who always like to know in advance how long their bums will be numbed.
Shakespeare's R&J really does last two hours, and it's radically stripped down to accommodate a framing device: four boys at a rather odd American Catholic boarding school, where the tuition never seems to move beyond the present indicative of amare, come alive at night via a smuggled copy of Romeo and Juliet. To begin with, the action is noisy and confused, and any sense of Shakespeare's text is squandered as Students 1, 2, 3 and 4 (as they are billed) dart across the stage as though they're playing badminton doubles, all the while trading rapid pentameters.
The boys' exploration of the text is cunningly structured, though. First they just want to identify and snigger at as many prick jokes as they can; then they want to prance about speaking in high voices and pantomiming the possession of huge boobs. Suddenly, they find the emotional core of the verse, and begin to connect with it.
Well, that's the idea. Initially the four young actors were rather bad verse speakers; perhaps with an eye on the clock, they gabbled through their lines as though they held no meaning. "Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wah!" one of them would go. "Yadda-yadda-yadda-yah!" another would reply. The show only began to coalesce when recognisable characters swirled forth from the murk. (As a rule of thumb, the closer attention is paid to what Shakespeare actually wrote, the more emotional truth is revealed - funny, that.) The duel between Mercutio and Tybalt was beautifully stylised and in deadly earnest - these boys know all about machismo and the inability to back down. Then the cast whittled right down to the Nurse, the Friar, R and J. But which Student was which? Jason Dubin (Nurse) has curly hair and Jeremy Beck (Friar, Mercutio) is blond, so that's easy, but the other two have crew-cuts and look almost identical. So which one's Romeo - the one who looks a bit like Joey from Friends (Matthew Sincell) or the one who looks a bit like Will Young (Jason Michael Spelbring)? From my vantage point in the back of the stalls, I couldn't tell.
We don't get to see much of the feuding Montagues and Capulets with the background cut away like this, but the militaristic school setting amply updated the sense of dread engendered by this unauthorised romance. But this is not the gay R&J. The production treads an elegant line between "I think I might be gay" and "Hell, there aren't any chicks round here, you'll do." The sense that Romeo and Juliet are getting slightly different things out of the relationship adds a new layer of ambiguity and irony. The implications of love begin subtly to change the dynamic of the foursome: an ugly note of bullying creeps in, though when one character was viciously debagged and stood weeping in his spotless white pants, his trembling demeanour contrasted amusingly with his vast, American jock thighs.
The second half was absolutely cracking. Suddenly, everything gelled: the dramatic, yet unobtrusive design, in black, white and scarlet, and the bolt of red cloth which comes to signify bloody death; the stunning lighting which matched the mood of every scene; and the new seriousness of the actors, weighing each word. A pity, really, that some of those words came from elsewhere in the canon: nothing wrong with the boys suddenly starting to spout sonnets, it was just a shame they were the dully clichéd ones like "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment". Schoolboys doing Romeo and Juliet in the dormitory was always going to be a bit camp, a bit kitsch, a bit Dead Poets Society: for much of this two hours' traffic, the meaty thighs keep that risk to a minimum.
'Shakespeare's R&J': Arts Theatre, London WC2 (020 7836 3334), to 8 November
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