A near-perfect production that is electrifying, fun, and modern.

Romeo & Juliet is director Nicholai La Barrie’s Royal Exchange debut, and it is a daunting venture. With Shakespeare, the difficulty is freshening the text and its themes; any Shakespearean production must justify its revival. While many people cite universal themes, exemplary dramatic narratives, and heritage as reasons for revival, there should be additional reason(s) to reproduce a play that has been consistently reimagined since the 16th century. La Barrie outlines his reasons in the programme and he is motivated by a belief that: “theatre is about giving something back…I want to present a story…for people in Manchester”. Set within contemporary Manchester, Romeo & Juliet is modern, humorous, and at times, breathtakingly powerful. 

The production has a strong cast, and the navigation of the text is generally good. As is often the case with Shakespearean productions, some of the lines are lost or spoken too quickly, which is a pity. In this regard, Conor Glean’s performance as Romeo is strong; he brings humour, arrogance, and naivety to the role. Act One emphasises the humour of Romeo & Juliet; it’s as quick-paced and witty as a contemporary sitcom. Crucially, the production is primed from the beginning to seamlessly transition from comedy to tragedy by incorporating elements of the Gothic tradition. For example: the lighting is subdued; there is constantly a layer of smoke/mist on stage; the characters carry an odd assortment of weapons (including Samurai swords and axes); and Juliet’s balcony becomes a cage that casts a jarring shadow on the stage as it is raised above the characters. From the start, humour and petty fights are framed by a palpable sense of violence and bleakness; petty taunts naturally become murder. Additionally, the use of Gothic elements reinforces the tragedy of the story. This is particularly evident in Juliet’s burial scene; Juliet’s shrouded body is carried on stage during a thunderstorm, accompanied by regretful characters dressed in funeral clothes. While there is no dialogue, the music allows this scene, perhaps, to supersede the final scene as the dramatic climax. While the audience expects the final scene to be powerful, the unexpected prioritisation of the “faked” funeral scene deepens the tragedy. Ultimately, this fake funeral becomes a real one. While the ill-timed deaths of star-crossed lovers are tragic, so is the death of an individual loving youth within (and because of) a violent world. 

Aside from this, I would hesitate to say that Romeo and Juliet freshen the source text. The production is excellent, but the Mancunian identity could be more anchored. There are good efforts; actors speak with Mancunian accents and additional lines add context and humour: “Wherefore art Ashford Drive?”. Additionally, characters wear street clothes, ride bikes, and fight in gang land feuds. However, this isn’t specific enough to Manchester. In short, if the actors spoke with Liverpudlian or North Dublin accents, the play would easily transition to those places with little adaptation. This is not strictly negative, but if the intention is to present a distinctly Mancunian Romeo & Juliet, there is more potential here. 

La Barrie’s Romeo & Juliet is an incredible production. I would especially recommend it as an introduction to Shakespeare (for teenagers or adults underwhelmed by traditional ideas of Shakespeare) as it is modern, funny, and accessible. It is also worthwhile for those who have seen other productions of Romeo & Juliet. The cast is energetic, electric, and passionate and the utilisation of Gothic tradition is intriguing. Romeo & Juliet runs in the Royal Exchange Theatre until the 18th of November.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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