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March 8, 2004 | by  | in Theatre |
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The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

“Wellington’s most fearless company takes on Shakespeare’s most clichéd play. A classic tale of boy meets girl, boy stalks girl and turns up under her balcony in the middle of the night, boy kills girl’s cousin, girl drinks sleeping potion, messenger gets waylaid, boy drinks poison, girl disembowels herself, friar and nurse escape unpunished and feuding families erect statues of their dead kids. There’s also two hours of traffic and a famous speech about a fairy.”–

Post-Baz Luhrrman, it seems that everyone is falling over them self to re-invent and re-image Shakespeare. Directors toy with period settings, gender, sexuality and accent, among other things, in an effort to be the Most Original Production, and it pisses me off. Not because I’m a purist, mind you, but because it’s beginning to seem really tired. The Bacchanals’ February run of Romeo and Juliet did all those things, and I couldn’t have loved it more. Why did it work in this instance? Well, inasmuch as anyone should be a purist about Shakespeare, his text is, of course, key. The Bacchanals’ manifesto states a commitment to great, text-based plays, and, true to their word, the entire script of the “two hours’ traffic” (said with knowing, iffy hand gestures in the opening chorus) was performed.

A company of just nine actors, playing several roles each, with nary a weak link to be found also helped. The performances were superb: the dialogue delivered often at breakneck speed: no grandstanding or showponying allowed among these young thesps, obviously. Standout were Hadleigh Walker as Mercutio (boy, could he die) and Erin Banks’ Benvolio – a laddish, expressive performance.

Casting was clearly without agenda, and it was refreshing to see women taking on male parts with no politicisation. And modernisation of setting worked here again, because the text was key. Where Luhrrman used “Longsword” branded rifles in a fairly contrived way to make his setting work, the Bacchanals instead work with the script: “the mask of night” becomes a face mask, for example. Romeo pops Smints™ before the wedding. The lovers emerge with sex hair the morning after.

I got the feeling, watching this production, that I’d wandered into a really, really good rehearsal. All the fun with none of the performance anxiety, the actors in their street clothes, sitting on beer crates onstage, relaxing with beer off.

It’s too late for you to catch this particular show now, however the Bacchanals will be back in November with a run of Euripides at BATS. Go and see them.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by David Lawrence
The Bacchanals
BATS Tuesday 27 January – Saturday 21 February 2004.

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