Love is a balancing act. In this Brazilian reworking of Shakespeare’s tragic pas de deux, Juliet negotiates the stage en pointe while Romeo strides around atop flower-bedecked stilts. They move with their arms forever out-stretched and parasols held aloft as if the ground beneath them was in constant danger of shifting, unsteady, not to be trusted. When the two lovers catch their first glimpse of one another their capacity to balance escapes them; she stumbles one way while he tumbles to the floor.
Of all the companies involved in the Globe to Globe Festival, Brazil’s Grupo Galpão are the only ones returning for a second visit. Their energetic, often bawdy take on Romeo and Juliet, performed in Brazilian Portuguese, was staged at the venue 12 years ago and it remains a solidly crowd-pleasing piece: broad in its humour, thin on nuance, a rapid run-through of the text fuelled by music and song.
The company’s roots are in street theatre and, as if to emphasis this, a battered silver Volvo estate dominates the stage. The cast perch on its roof, hop in and out of its doors and use one of the windows as an impromptu puppet theatre. The performance begins in the pit, with the actors and musicians weaving through the crowd and it never quite cuts the threads. The crowd, their laughter and engagement, are fundamental to the piece’s power and it’s at its most successful when it’s at its most carnivalesque. Tropes of the circus are very much in evidence too: there are red noses, white faces, and Shakespeare himself plays Ringmaster, a benign conductor, dangling a sliver of silver moon on a fishing rod over the lovers’ heads or remonstrating with passing helicopters.
The parasols, which the performers use as balancing aids, are a recurring motif, inventively employed. Black parasols are unfurled when the Capulets assemble to mourn their daughter; whereas earlier they had been used to mask a snatched marital kiss, here they become markers of grief.
Each character is reduced to a single gesture or trait, resulting in a kind of visual shorthand; for Mercutio it’s a thrusting crotch and roaming eye, while the nurse sports a heaving silken bosom which she often squeezes and fondles like a favourite pet. The leering Friar Lawrence wears robes into which are stitched dozens of tiny votive paintings.
Some of the verbal humour is no doubt lost, which can’t help but have an impact on perception of the piece, but there are times when the broadness of tone threatens to become monotonous; there is little shading, little sense of pain or tragedy: Rodolfo Vaz’s Mercutio is still waggling his groin even in his death throes and the production’s insistence that lavishly bosomed middle-aged women are inherently hilarious soon grows wearisome. Only Eduardo Moreira and Fernanda Vianna, as the central couple, manage to briefly transcend the comic tone, to suggest the strength of connection between them and to hint at their anguish. Juliet’s death scene, her swanlike demise, successfully stilled the crowd for a minute or two, before the band struck up again and the celebratory mood resumed.