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9 May 2001

shakespeare's r&j

Felicia Chan reviews the Bard's most well-known play with a cast of only four "Catholic schoolboys".

Shakespeare's R&J
Directed by Tony Petito
Singapore Repertory Theatre

I must confess. When I first read the synopsis of Shakespeare's R&J, I thought, "Oh no, not more revisionist Shakespeare." Catholic schoolboys. Romeo & Juliet. Young love. Self-discovery. Growing up. I was sure I'd seen (though maybe not done) that before.

But this adaptation of the Bard's most well-known play to an unexpected (and yet rather apt) scenario was full of surprises. Like a good school story, it was funny and touching, as the boys discover something in themselves come alive as they begin to test the way the poetry bounces off their tongues. And yet that self-discovery never escalates into melodrama or camp as similar stories sometimes do.

And unlike other revisionist versions of Shakespeare, text and context don't compete for attention. Remaining in ubiquitous white uniforms and striped ties throughout, the characters never abandon their roles completely and disappear into the Bard's. There was no cross-dressing as one might have expected, no dressing up of any kind save for a bright red sash of cloth that served as almost any moveable object from the Nurse's headdress to Juliet's dagger to the blood that spills from youthful folly.

Neither does the Catholic school setting displace the Shakespeare, and the close, yet subtle, interweaving of the two is masterfully effective. While the boys hardly speak any lines outside of Shakespeare's, the context of their environment breaks in only at crucial moments. Even as the energy of the language begins to release the boys from the restrictive confines of Catholic school rituals, the theme of forbidden love is mapped one onto the other so closely and so well that, even when the two boys kiss, one almost forgets one isn't quite watching the actual play.

Watch out for the climactic wedding scene where the tension between the two 'lovers' comes to a head. The pages of the text are ripped to shreds and 'Romeo' no longer has access to his lines. What does he do? I won't give away the surprise except to say that, the spontaneity of schoolboy invention injects a welcome freshness into lines made too familiar by rote-learning.

Rehaan Engineer as the bold and confident leader of the group provided a nice counterfoil to the haplessness of the lovesick Romeo. Brendon Marc Fernandez faltered over Juliet's lines at times but, hey, here was an actor playing a boy playing a girl, and one speaking poetry at that. He didn't always get the lines perfectly straight, but it didn't really matter.

Chua Enlai 's endearing performance as the Nurse entertained without stealing the show. But the real energy of the play lay with Joel Trinidad, for his effortless role switching between those of Mercutio, Lady Capulet, and Friar Lawrence. Set within the larger context of his other role as concerned friend and the voice of silent disapproval, he managed to alter the group's dynamic in unspoken ways. Whoever said pretty boys couldn't do Shakespeare? Leonardo Di Caprio, eat their shor er, striped ties.

So that will teach me to judge a performance by its synopsis, and all that remains for me to do now is to urge you to buy a ticket (or win one in Fridæ's contest) to the play, for after the two hours traffic of that stage, I should say that my sin was well purg'd.

Click here for Fridae's Shakespeare's R&J contest!

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