In this new production at the Royal Exchange, director Nicholai La Barrie tries to give the classic Shakespearean tale a modern twist with heavy Mancunian aspects – however, questions arise on whether they overdid the twist.
La Barrie grew up in Manchester and spins the drama to become his love letter to the city. It features Manc accents and regional slang.
He also tries to position the play in the modern day, which is seen greatly in how the characters are dressed.
To add to that aspect there is an impression that both families, the Montagues and the Capulets, are rival gangs. Everyone in the play was carrying a knife at all times – even the nurse.
They double down on aspects of gang warfare, showcasing extreme amounts of violence and portraying Romeo – played by Conor Glen – as a glorified thug.
Glen meanwhile portrays Romeo as a hesitant and overwhelmed persona looking for love but failing at it from the very beginning.
On the other hand, Shalisha James-Davis’ Juliet is a confiedent and outspoken character, taking control of her own life, and not at all a shy wallflower.
These aspects of La Barrie’s twists to the tale do come off very well, engaging the audience and making it feel like this familiar renaissance drama has been brought into the present.
However, La Barrie doesn’t seem to trust the audience. Rather than letting the audience naturally grasp his creative concept, he slows the play down in the first half.
The pacing before the interval is tiring, with each scene lasting longer than it should. By doing this Mancunian and modern aspects do get emphasised, but at the behest of good storytelling.
In this half, he also lets his creativity run a bit too wild – as the masquerade where Romeo and Juliet first meet is converted into a disco featuring an EDM version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”.
This scene was also dimly lit, with the red and blue lighting in between – I couldn’t help but think that I had moved from Shakespeare to a new series of Skins.
The same cannot be said for the second half. The story kept moving in this half and did not let a single second dwell on for too long.
The sets by Good Teeth should also be greatly appreciated. Though the Royal Exchange is a small theatre with no backstage, the crew made use of moving sets on the ground and larger pieces coming from the ceiling.
The balcony, for example, was a cylindrical structure stuck to the ceiling that at first glance just looked like lighting.
Meanwhile, the acting from all members of the cast was outstanding. From the leads to the characters you may only see once, everyone had amazing stage presence and commanded the audience’s attention.
Overall it was an intriguing rendition that might have had some problems but was entertaining nonetheless.
Romeo and Juliet is running at the Royal Exchange until 18 November.
Photo credit: Johan Persson