Marcel Meyer (Student 1 / Romeo) & James MacGregor
(Student 2 / Juliet)

High school Shakespeare was never like this! For the first time, an all-male re-interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic love story Romeo and Juliet takes to South African stages. We spoke to one of the stars and the director of Shakespeare’s R&J, which will be presented at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and in Cape Town.

The New York Times described the play, adapted by American playwright Joe Calarco, as “a vibrant, hot-blooded new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet” that “pulsates with an adolescent abandon and electricity of which Romeo himself might approve”.

This is Romeo and Juliet like you’ve never seen it before: Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers are reconceived as two adolescent schoolboys in a Catholic boarding school in the 1950’s and their love for one another becomes the ultimate forbidden love in this austere, repressive all male milieu.

In the play, four pupils discover an illicit copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and start acting it out in their dormitory late one night. Perceptions and understandings are turned upside down as the fun of play acting turns serious and the words and meanings begin to hit home and universal truths emerge.

Told entirely through Shakespeare’s language, it is both the story of Romeo and Juliet but also the journey of four young men who during the course of one night discover the power of theatre and the new worlds it can open up.

The production is being staged by director Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer (who not only co-produces but also plays Student 1 / Romeo). Together, they have presented some of Cape Town’s most successful gay plays and musicals, including hit shows like Bangbroek Mountain – The Musical About Camping and In Briefs – A Queer Little Musical.

Director Fred Abrahamse

Most recently they garnered acclaim for their three-man staging of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy Of Richard III. The rest of the cast of Shakespeare’s R&J, who all play various roles in the play, include James MacGregor (Student 2 / Juliet), Rory Acton Burnell and Alistair Moulton Black.

Abrahamse denies that the production is gimmicky, explaining that Calarco has cleverly used the theme of forbidden love in Romeo and Juliet to explore the love between two young people of the same sex.

“What is that first love all about? Is it hero worship? The beginning of a true lifelong friendship between two people of the same sex? Or is it the beginning of a gay relationship?,” he says.

He insists that despite the reworking, traditionalists will also love the production. “When one is into Shakespeare and familiar with the text – the ingenuity of this adaptation will really appeal to you. The integrity and the language of the piece are beautifully maintained and a fresh approach to a work is always stimulating.”

Meyer, who previously portrayed Romeo in a traditional full-scale production of the play at Cape Town’s Maynardville Open-Air Theatre, says that he doesn’t approach the role differently just because Romeo might be gay in this production.

“The core emotions – true, intense, passionate first love; the heartache at the loss of that love; anger; despair; euphoria – always remain the same, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation,” he says.

“Romeo is a passionate young man, who for the first time in his life falls deeply in love with another human being. In this particular staging of the play – the object of his affection happens to be one of his classmates – another 18 year old schoolboy.”

Meyer believes that changing the gender and sexuality of the characters only highlight Shakespeare’s most important theme in the play; “the possibility and ability of love to defy the restrictions placed on it by society”.

He adds: “The notion of two catholic schoolboys in the 1950’s falling in love with each other is as taboo a concept within that milieu as it is for Romeo and Juliet to fall in love with each other in a world where their two families and indeed the whole city of Verona is torn apart by a devastating, bloody and violent feud.”

Abrahamse says that he’s particularly excited that “one can make a 400 year old play come alive for a 21st century audience. I especially get excited about the way young people, and I mean learners, respond to my work.”

Alistair Moulton Black & Rory Acton Burnell

He bemoans people’s prejudice toward the classics; often regarding them as stuffy, not relevant and old fashioned.

“People have it in their heads that they won’t understand the language. I think many a miss-taught school experience of Shakespeare has ruined the beauty of his work for many people – for life!”

Abrahamse expects the play to resonate with all audiences but especially gay people.

“I think loads of gay people will totally identify with that agony of first love – when they fell in love with their best friend – how do you approach the subject of how you feel towards them – will it be reciprocated or will you be rejected? The agony of not knowing and being paralysed into doing nothing out of fear.

“Also the difficulties some people experienced knowing they were gay and in an all boy or girls school or the trauma of being part of a family or society that does not accept them and their sexuality. But, at the same time, the absolute thrill that it might be reciprocated by the first person to the person of your dreams!”

Shakespeare’s R&J is on at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from Friday 8 to Sunday 10 July and at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town from 25 July to 20 August. Book at Computicket.

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