Romeo, wherefore? Oh, on the sports field perchance
Sex, satire and sport: it’s not an obvious combination, but it’s one that these updated versions of Shakespeare’s witty and tragic, but also exciting and funny, love story often have in common. If you’re looking for something to take your non-theatre loving friends to, they’re all also highly accessible and a great reminder of not only how evocative the original language is, which they each include, but the range of subject matter it’s possible to cover through clever and creative contemporary adaptations.
Romeo and Juliet by Curious Pheasant tells the tale of two male rugby star (crossed) lovers, in the unlikely yet strangely well-suited world of two warring teams, their rivalry stretching from scrums of the playing field to drunken brawls and a house (of Capulet) party. The testosterone-fuelled machismo and unapologetic prejudice of the men makes this is a place where having a relationship with someone who’s on the wrong sporting ‘side’ is equally as vilified as being gay.
It’s a neat little concept that, through the strategically tweaked text, adds extra tension to the already high-stakes drama. It also conveniently allows the all-male cast to wear t-shirts with their names on the back, which they pull on and off as quickly as they change characters – perfect for audience members who struggle to keep up with who’s who and/ or those who feel semi-nudity is an integral part of going to see a gay-themed show.
A blokeish reluctance to talk about feelings is brilliantly contrasted with some of Romeo and (male) Juliet’s most memorably emotional scenes, with Romeo’s down-to-earth drawl undercut by sexual tension as he looks up at his soon-to-be lover and asks, “O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” It’s a piece that elsewhere ramps up the innuendo of Shakespeare’s delicious lines through ‘locker room’ banter. Finally some clever cuts lead to a less expected ending – one that shifts the narrative to take the effects of homophobia to their violent, tragic and logical conclusion. The result is heart breaking.
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Meanwhile, there’s another kind of Capulet in da house party – one from the Midlands – in Nick Hennegan’s similarly sport-themed Romeo & Juliet set around two warring football clubs, Birmingham City and Aston Villa. Here, a female Juliet is equally at home kicking a ball as she is listening to R&B and sending gossipy texts. This is a place where “examine other beauties” means getting on Tinder and living your life obsessing over a man is a definite no, no – at least until “lips” start doing “what hands do” and it becomes a definite yes, yes.
Here, the banter is as up to date as the latest i-Phone, thanks to amusing colloquial asides woven into the dialogue by Hennegan to create a culture clash between Shakesperian and contemporary language – one that’s as invigorating as the physical theatre battles between the two teams of players at the start.
With the inevitable tragedy looming, the comic interjections subside in a way that reveals their limitations, but as Romeo and Juliet wishfully plan their future together in Manchester – an unlikely alternative to Mantua – the remaining flecks of humour makes what we all know is going happen next even sadder.
With epic musical interjections reminiscent of queuing for a major theme park attraction, it’s a piece that could be developed through a bigger production that integrates sound and physicality more throughout, as well as a full set. But when the young performers take their bow, it’s a surprising reminder of how large a story they’ve managed to tell with only a cast of four.
It’s something that singer-songwriter Rob McGlade ambitiously attempts to do with only a cast of one – himself – in Romeo and Juliet: One-Man Musical. Compared to the two previous shows, he’s an embodiment of understatement and, as he tunes his guitar, wearing a t-shirt and trackie bottoms, he looks like he’s ready to hang out in his bedroom, rather than take an epic love story to the stage.
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The idea of adapting Shakespeare’s verse into a small-scale theatrical concept album, as he has here, is strong, and the piece has clearly involved a lot of work, including a great programme. Unfortunately, the decision to try and convey the sex and violence of Shakespeare’s language with softly sung ballads doesn’t so much capture what the story is about as drown it in sugar.
Frantic thrashing of the guitar at key emotional moments undercuts the feeling of a cheesy lounge bar, but a greater variety of musical moods – and not all of them familiar or comfortable – are needed to convey the multi-dimensional text, which, occasionally, still shines through. “I die”, proclaims our exhausted narrator at the end, followed by, “Thank you”. It’s as if he’s just finished playing Glastonbury, and he’s certainly set himself an epic challenge.
R’n’J: The Untold Story of Shakespeare’s Roz and Jules starts where the previous show comes to an end: with Juliet hunched over Romeo’s body, about to kill herself. But wait, what’s this? RoRo(meo)’s mobile phone is ringing and he’s been texting Roz(aline)?
This fun and feminist-themed version continues the story through a 21st century sequel, in which ‘Jules’ decides moving on from Romeo is a more proportional reaction to what he’s done than stabbing herself in the heart with a dagger. However, there’s one problem: she’s pregnant and her family isn’t happy.
It’s a cool, clever and funny little script by talented young writer Carmina Bernhardt, who also performs in the ensemble cast, in which Roz and Jules go on a Thelma and Louise-style road trip, following the kind of hot-headed altercation that’s more associated with Romeo and the lads.
The modern verse might lack the sarcasm and subtext of Shakespeare’s language, but through an escalating series of comic events – including a visit to a hippy dippy drugs dealer apothecary – it skilfully reworks the story (and elements of some of Shakespeare’s other plays) to create a female-focused mirror version of it.
It’s a show that you’ll probably enjoy most if you’ve recently seen at least one other production of the original play. Imaginative use of film footage and well-observed teenage slang opens up the world, but could be developed further through a bigger production to take things beyond he parameters of a student drama.
However, as Roz and Jules look up at the stars and contemplate a future with or without kids in tow, their friendship feels just as romantic as anything else going on with Romeo and whoever he’s with in a parallel universe elsewhere. Falling in love isn’t the be all and end all in life, it seems, whatever version of Romeo and Juliet you watch. It’s a piece that has so much more going on in it – including comedy, camaraderie and a variety of different relationships, all of which are equally fascinating, as demonstrated by the scale and scope of this wide-reaching range of productions.
Romeo and Juliet by Curious Pheasant
Until 24 August
Romeo & Juliet
Until 25 August
Romeo and Juliet: One-Man Musical
Until 24 August
R’n’J: The Untold Story of Shakespeare’s Roz and Jules
Until 26 August