Grupo Galpão’s  Romeu e Julieta (Reprise)

I saw the show once before, 12 years ago, when I was an employee of Shakespeare’s Globe.  I have retained a deep affection for both space and show since then.  But I am not alone in this; I see the smiling faces of favourite former Globe colleagues in the crowd, and I settle down for an event which is more reunion than revival.

We hear the company before we see them: a motley band of piano accordions, acoustic guitars, saxophones and flutes strikes up.   Grupo Galpão are accomplished musicians, and impressive multi-taskers.  Some of them – notably Eduardo Moreira’s sad-faced  Romeo – can sing, play, and walk around on giant stilts at the same time.  Sung refrains return again and again, like tiny sonnets, and a lot of narrative work is done with a very few notes.  Duets are common, harmonies less so, and more often than not the ensemble sing with one voice.

The troupe seizes the first available opportunity to recruit its audience, snaking through a packed yard of excited groundlings who clap them to the stage like a returning battalion of clown soldiers at home-coming.   I recognise all but one of the painted clown faces from 12 years ago, and I fight the urge to wave stupidly at them, contenting myself with humming the tune that suddenly seem so familiar.

The set looks familiar too.  A Volvo estate plastered with floral window-stickers, looking like a limousine at a clown-wedding, is parked on the Globe stage.  The car supports a small stage platform, and the platform supports step-ladder, as well as several bendy bamboo poles.  On the end of the longest bamboo, a crescent moon dangles, like giant lunar bait.  The company’s interventions in the space 12 years ago, in the midst of the then Artistic Directorate’s experiments with ‘original stage practices’, seemed provocative.  Today, the car looks altogether more sedate, just another set-piece on a Globe stage which bears the marks of many such interventions in the more recent past.

Grupo Galpão’s work understands the theatrical value of nostalgia, and they use the currency of childhood memories in various arresting ways.  Two lifesize chalk outlines drawn on the Globe stage mark two makeshift graves, one for each of the lovers.  A hilarious dumbshow shootout between rival clown-factions ends with the ‘dead’ victims frozen, their limbs held in rigid ‘star’ silhouettes, creating a tableau that could have been sketched by a four year old witness to the violent event; this lends a brilliantly simple resonance to  Juliet’s plea, ‘Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die/Take him and cut him out in little stars’ (3.2,21-22).  Physical storytelling of this kind obviates the need for a spoken prologue, but one is magnificently supplied by ‘Shakespeare’, a clown in doublet and hose, whose face is the perfect synthesis of Krusty the Clown and the Droueshout portrait.

An appealing internal logic determines that Mercutio, a clown sporting a red nose, solemnly switches this for a white nose after his death.  Tybalt’s demise involves the slow and poignant removal of his stilts by Lady Capulet; this makes for a rather unorthodox pieta.  The Nurse’s job-description is manifested by the two enormous satin, tasselled cushions hanging around her neck as comically amplified bosom-pillows.

I don’t have a lick of Portuguese, so I am more than a beat or two behind the crowd’s responses to Mercutio’s verbal quips, but the commitment to physical storytelling made by Grupo Galpão is so significant that this seems only a minor inconvenience.  The sounds are still affective, and hearing this famous play in an unfamiliar language seems to me the aural equivalent of watching actors perform while wearing a neutral mask.  Actors sometimes use masks to develop a kind of precision in somatic storytelling, just as the mask forces the spectator to refocus their visual engagement to find meaning in the actors’ movement and gestures, rather than in their facial expressions. Hearing Shakespeare’s famous love story in Portuguese concentrates my ear on sounds rather than words, and the sounds I hear are vowels.  Vowels (as any post-Cicely Berry voice teacher worth their salt will tell you) carry the emotional content of our words.  I blame this, and the occasion, for the lump in my throat at the end.

Dr Jacquelyn Bessell
Lecturer
Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon