Romeo and Juliet
c21 Theatre Company condense Shakespeare's classic tragedy to create 'a serious, articulate' version for young audiences
The argument runs as follows. Modern teenagers spend oceans of time surfing social media. They have short attention spans, and have grown up on the fast-cut, quick-fix editing techniques of contemporary Hollywood movie-makers. How on earth can they be expected to sit through three hours of unadulterated Shakespeare, or understand a fraction of the language in it?
Enter c21, a Belfast theatre company whose new production of Romeo and Juliet is currently touring venues across Northern Ireland. Writer Gary Wilson has sliced the play in half for them, retaining the core narrative and original language, and reducing the casting requirements to a mere six actors. The new version runs for 90 minutes in total, with no interval.
It could have been an act of mindless butchery, but it actually works excellently. The main effect is to powerfully distil the essence of the action, neatly establishing the ruinous battle-lines between Montagu and Capulet, but concentrating principally on the doomed relationship between Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers.
It helps enormously that both Romeo and Juliet are played by young actors – Juliet is, after all, little more than a girl in the play. She's portrayed with affecting vulnerability by Joline O'Hara, whose intelligent balancing of the postures that she needs to strike in public situations, with the emotions welling turbulently within her, is managed with marked skill and sensitivity. As a young woman haplessly in love, and tenderly in thrall to Romeo, this is a highly credible, touching personation.
O'Hara is ably supported by Michael Lavery, a handsome, impetuous Romeo. Both actors speak the lines sensitively, with a real feeling for the delicate admixture of innocence and nascent sensuality that lies within them. Around them the other four actors multi-part busily, with swift changes of costume and accents to denote the various characters that they are playing.
Among them the Mercurio of Dan Leith stands out for his bristling physicality and aggression. So too does the Friar Laurence of Mark Claney, another actor who handles the Shakespeare idiom with patience, and a genuine understanding of how to clarify the meaning of language which most audience members today would probably find obscure and archaic.
In this he and the other actors are strongly supported by the astute direction of Arthur Webb, who never over-heats the action, and moves the narrative forward purposefully, without resorting to the type of frenetic dash towards the finishing tape which often masquerades as dramatic tension in the modern theatre.
Webb keeps the set design minimal and costumes simple, in tune with what we know about standard Elizabethan theatrical practice. This again has the effect of focusing the attention on what the characters are actually saying to one another: this is a leanly economical, distraction-free staging, riveting in a way that plusher, more expensively styled productions don't automatically manage.
c21 describes this new staging of Romeo and Juliet as 'bite-sized', but it's actually more substantially nourishing than that. This is a serious, articulate version of the play, stripped to the bone in a manner which presents the predicament of the young lovers particularly starkly, and the bone-headed intransigence of the warring family factions especially bluntly.
The school audiences c21 is principally targeting (I'd recommend it equally to adults) should lap this production up greedily. Without dumbing down its content, or indulging in embarrassing modishness and crass updatings, it makes the play's themes seem vividly contemporary, and shows how powerful a vehicle Shakespeare's magnificently trenchant, richly allusive language remains for the analysis of human behaviour and experience.