Review

Young men’s love and where it lies

R&J

BOYS will be boys: Tailyn Ramsamy (Student 2/Juliet/Benvolio), with Matthew Baldwin (Student 1/Romeo). Photograph courtesy Daily Maverick.

IT WAS ALWAYS the love affair to end all love affairs and give birth to a myriad of platitudes and clichés about the universal tale of boy meeting girl, in spite of social barriers, and boy loving girl in the midst of catastrophe. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been reinterpreted in easily a million different contexts, since 1594, when it was written. Arguably one of the wiser and more sophisticated versions of this tragedy graced the stage of Montecasino early this month in a brief season. Performed by four actors and crafted to fit in the context of an illicit play within a play about boys, it’s a work which, directed by Fred Abrahamse, offers a gloss not only on the complexity of young love, but on the testosterone pumping energy of four boys in a Catholic high school.

And all the elements are in place, from a set that credibly transforms from a rudimentary reflection on formal classrooms into dormitories, and from there into balconies, vestibules and crypts of the 16th century. Evocative of the use of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was used as a narrative device in the 1990s HBO television series Oz, this stage production sees reality become doubly enfolded into narrative upon narrative. Safe in the hands of Dean Balie, Matthew Baldwin, Tailyn Ramsamy and Jeremy Richard, nothing of these complex narrative structures are lost: the actors playing school boys never lose their form, sleight of hand raises them into Shakespearean characters, and the work is told with unequivocal clarity.

And while the play, which has seen light of day in South Africa eight years ago, has many things, from Latin verb conjugations and note-passing to Shakespearean sonnets woven into its mix, it is Romeo and Juliet that you will recognise if you know the play or are a student of it. The brilliance of segueing the high school boy values with those of love-struck Renaissance era teens cannot be underplayed. The story is universal, but the central characters are mere teenagers engaging with a passion big enough to destroy them.

It’s a work which challenges gender complacency and forbidden love with the normal giggles and rude jibes of high school boys, but with the tenderness and earnestness of ardent youth, as well. As an educational device, it is difficult to imagine a more lively, witty and wise insight into what makes Shakespeare great. The biggest tragedy with this work is the fact that the season was alas too brief.

  • Shakespeare’s R & J is conceived by Joe Calarco based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and directed by Fred Abrahamse. It is performed by Matthew Baldwin, Dean Balie, Tailyn Ramsamy and Jeremy Richard, and features design and professional input by Fred Abrahamse (set and lighting), Marcel Meyer (costumes, voice and verse coach), Brother Michael Burke (Catholic consultant). It performed at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino complex in Fourways until September 8.
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