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Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare

Royal Exchange Theatre Company

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester

October 20 - November 18, 2023: 2 hrs 50 mins

Conor Glean (Romeo) and Shalisha James-Davis (Juliet) in the Royal Exchange Theatre's Romeo and Juliet. cr Johan Persson
Sweet sorrow: Conor Glean (Romeo) and Shalisha James-Davis (Juliet) in the Royal Exchange Theatre's Romeo and Juliet. All pics: Johan Persson

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This is very much a Mancunian Romeo and Juliet – and since the city is known for huge self-confidence and pride right now, it’s not surprising that it goes down very well with its audience.

At the same time, Nicholai la Barrie’s production is almost self-denying in its sparseness (most of the time). There’s a kind of cylindrical climbing frame flown in for the “balcony” scene, both parties having to get up and down it, and a rectangular platform jacks up from the floor to make a bed and then a bier (and the old faithful idea of rain and umbrellas for a funeral makes its appearance), but the concepts are near-abstract (design by GOOD TEETH). Efficient lighting (Azusa Ono) – and frequent blackouts – cover the scene switches.

It seems we’re learning that the text, as heard through the tones and cadences of a young Manchester community, is what it’s all about. Not every detail comes over clearly, but not every word is in use in any present-day English, anyway. But it’s often illuminating. Shakespeare sounds good in Northern voices, as other theatre groups have refreshingly discovered, and can also be very funny. One of la Barrie’s aims was to keep things light for most of the first half of the play, which makes for a bigger shock when the fatal stabbings come and the final tragedy begins to evolve.

There’s little attempt to create a locale for the story, beyond here and now, so talk about Verona and city walls just floats by unnoticed. The permanent set is a collection of speaker units on the floor that often double as seats, and other props (such as Friar Lawrence’s plant and herbal essence collection on a trolley) are simply pushed in and out as needed.

What’s a friar doing in modern Manchester, conducting marriages? Well, where would you find lords and ladies heading their families, or a prince trying to settle differences, or guys swaggering around with full-length swords as well as more regular blades? Well, you might find the last of those, I guess …

The point is that the text is still the text (though the shortened ending is oddly abrupt), and as for the characters, we can imagine today’s Manc equivalents. La Barrie says he did his research in Cheetham Hill, Salford and Chorlton. Conor Glean’s Romeo, a mixture of swagger, self-doubt and warm-heartedness, is from one of the first two of those, I think. His is the stand-out performance, timing the lines just right in the “light” half of the story, tender in the love scenes and mad as mad in the fights. David Judge makes a very angry Mercutio, who must come from one of them, too – even his Queen Mab speech is dripping with bitterness.

Juliet, played by Shalisha James-Davis (Paige in Casualty), is almost 17 rather than the age Shakespeare made her, so more self-assured than you might have expected, and she DJs at the Capulet party. I think she must be a Chorlton girl – in fact the whole Capulet family are from that suburb, I reckon: cool enough, but definitely people who know which side their bread’s buttered. Except for Juliet, once love has struck – she knows her own mind, but once it’s made up no one’s going to change it.

Kate Hampson’s Lady (and Lord) Capulet is fascinating: mother of a teenager who certainly won’t let go and reckons she’s got the future well tied up… except she can’t handle anything that’s beyond her plans. Sometimes she just freezes in an uncomprehending stare.

The others may not be so easy to locate, but that’s no drawback. Gemma Ryan’s Nurse might well be working for a family well-distant from her own origins. Only Friar Lawrence is not a Manc – newly arrived pastor of a missionary church, maybe? Geoff Aymer gives him the humanity we’re longing for.

I said the production is sparse, most of the time (even Mark Melville’s score and sound design are near-subliminal for much of the time, but effective). The big exception was the Capulets’ party. With some heavy beats and the services of the Royal Exchange’s talented “Supernumerary Company” to swell the ranks, they get down to some lively dancing (movement by Jade Hackett), and the front rows of the stage-side audience join in, too. They were just mad fer it.

More info and tickets here


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