“Proud can I never be of what I hate”
What first attracted me to a gay remake of Romeo and Juliet set in a military academy I cannot tell you but shallowness for shirtless soldiers aside, Alan Brown’s Private Romeo is a fascinating and adventurous take on Shakespeare. Eight military cadets are left unsupervised for four days as everyone else departs on some land navigation exercise or other, with the strict instruction to follow their usual campus routine. In English Lit though, their study of Romeo and Juliet takes on a new practical dimension as it inspires a real romance between leads Sam and Glenn.
Writer/director Alan Brown thus blends classroom readings with real-life re-enactments as the boys fall under the spell of Shakespeare – the vast majority of the dialogue is the written text – but also mixes in contemporary concepts as lipsyncs to YouTube videos to pull us further away from orthodoxy. The Shakespearean narrative is necessarily compressed and considerably adapted, which takes a little getting used to, but the result is a heady mixture of exuberance and exhilaration which, whilst it doesn’t always quite come off, still results in the kind of admirable experimental quality that is most appealing.
So Seth Numrich’s Sam (Romeo) is thunderstruck by the depth of passion that swells for Matt Doyle’s Glenn (Juliet) and rather than the battles of Montagues and Capulets, it is institutional homophobia that the guys need to face down. “Now thou art what thou art” becomes loaded with a new significance as Sam departs from the closet in full view of everyone – Rosaline as an imaginary beard makes so much sense! – and so this world of hyper-masculinity and homoerotic horseplay has to violently realign itself to deal with this change in relationships.
It is here where Private Romeo doesn’t always have the greatest clarity. The prevailing use of Shakespeare’s language means that it isn’t always obvious what is happening IRL versus through the prism of the play – the friendships (or otherwise) between the boys aren’t established strongly enough to know precisely why one is fighting with another, or if Glenn is just being hazed or actually homophobically abused. But the shift between these worlds is gorgeously shot by Derek McKane with a deft use of saturated colour and the use of handheld brings a powerful urgency throughout, I don’t think I’ve ever been so affected by Juliet’s ‘death’.
And it is a deeply felt film, a sensitive reimagining that works cleverly on many levels, the talented cast finding new meanings in the text to reflect this world of fluid sexuality and male pride. Mercutio is recast brilliantly as a jealous lover by Hale Appleman, who cleverly reappears as a black-eyed Capulet – the doubling informing the playing wonderfully. And Numrich and Doyle are well-matched star-cross’d lovers, romantic and sincere and sexy and sexual, it works so well that you hold your breath throughout the entire ending, hoping that maybe just this one time, things might play out differently.