Shakespeare's R & J, Arts Theatre, London

Paul Taylor
Sunday 06 October 2013 05:49

With such sating regularity do productions of Romeo and Juliet trundle along the theatrical conveyor belt that even the most fully paid-up Bardolator must sometimes wish for a moratorium on the damn thing. Now, however, New York's Splinter group has hit the West End with a superb version that will open your eyes and ears to the piece as if you were experiencing it, with unjaded wonder, for the first time. That's because Joe Calarco, the adaptor and director, has found an arresting new context for the play that releases all its dangerous passion and adolescent turmoil.

On to a mostly bare stage, four young men, dressed in school uniform, march with high-kneed military precision. They have evidently been drilled to death and chant their rote-learnt lessons. Then, into the dorm of this repressive establishment, one of the students sneaks a copy of Romeo and Juliet, an extracurricular work that is as forbidden and hazardous in this environment as samizdat literature in a totalitarian regime.

At first, as they start to experiment with the text, tossing it from one to the other, they cover their embarrassed curiosity with joshing horseplay, but the emotions that the play flushes out in these youths become fraught with risk and are potentially unhinging.

You begin to realise that the adaptation gets its matchlessly charged and simmering atmosphere from the fact that the rigid constraints in the boys' boarding school offer a kind of echo of those that monitor and blight impulsive young love in Shakespeare's Verona. Often very funny (with Jason Dubin a fast-talking Nurse), the production is also highly erotic, with Matthew Sincell's Romeo and Jason Michael Spelbring's Juliet bringing a grave ardour to their passionate devotion.

The verse-speaking is a joy to hear for its intelligence, speed, and naturalness - particular honours going to the splendid Jeremy Beck who plays Mercutio. The co-ordination and the athletic suddenness of the group choreography are a constant surprise. Of the few props, the most telling is the red cloth that is used with a fluid inventiveness as way of symbolising both violent opposition and vulnerable connection.

Juliet's death, as she sinks backward and slowly loses her grip on this length of material, is heartbreaking. At the end, three of the quartet fall back into step with the military regimentation of the school, leaving the fourth clutching the book to his breast. This is not a gay version of Romeo and Juliet but a meditation on the meaning of manhood. It is also one of the most thrilling events of the theatrical year.

To 8 Nov (020-7836 3334)

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