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Romeo & Juliet | Royal Exchange Theatre

Inside the cage-like structure of the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, springs a tale of entrapment, destiny, and toiling romance. Romeo & Juliet, a story that has been endlessly retold and rewritten, fills the space with a haze of danger and beauty, kisses and nightmares. The pages of this well-known and well-thumbed play fall away to reveal a version that is new, electric and suffocating. 

The story of our ill-fated lovers is defined by paper-thin hatred and impulsive adoration; the pair are united in a dance that begins tucked away in the tender embrace of romance, before falling helplessly into tragedy. The headiness of this romance is emphasised in Romeo & Juliet through the dream-like lighting design – by Azusa Ono – and the play’s direction, drawing the audience in and tempting us with a vision of impossible happiness. Nicholai la Barrie directs with such energy; during the party scene, the actors encourage the audience to stand and dance alongside the characters, and a smaller, more intimate use of audience interaction rewrites the tone of one of Romeo’s monologues. Conor Glean’s Romeo rushes around the stage in giddy excitement, looking up at Juliet on the balcony and dwelling on the events of their first meeting, while directing lines at different members of the audience. This enthusiasm paints a more empathetically youthful and innocent Romeo (instead of a lovelorn, fickle, and naïve one), and imbues the moment with humour and tenderness.

Romeo & Juliet crosses the border between the stage and the audience; we are beckoned in, we dance beside the lovers, before being pushed aside. While these twists between comedy and tragedy help to create tension, it seems like the strain of comedy remains at this version’s core. As the romance turns into tragedy, the production struggles slightly to maintain the energy of the first half, in which the characters’ physicality, vocality and humour – Shalisha James-Davis and David Judge as Juliet and Mercutio brought so much vivacity to their characters – were unique and endearing. While it peeks through the second half in bursts, such as in the characters of the ‘apothecary’, the vibrancy of the first act is somewhat lost amongst Shakespeare’s fluctuation between genres. The two parts are discordant although beautifully performed; the second half lacks some of the personality that made the first half so engaging.

Overall, though, it is a wonderful adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. It is fast-paced, intimate, funny, and visually stunning. Good Teeth’s cage-like structure (representing the balcony), casts rigid shadows against the ground as it rises and falls. It hangs above the action like a trap, while also being a site of love and parting; it reminds us of the couple’s simultaneous unity and distance. Ono’s hazy lighting design transforms the stage into a liminal space of opportunity and hope, as a pale fog permeates the stage and coloured lights appear muted and dream-like. And, trapped in this dream, Glean and James-Davis create personable and charismatic versions of Romeo and Juliet: two innocent lovers struggling to survive amidst the suffocating force of hatred.

Romeo & Juliet is deliberate and assured in its approach. Every choice contributes to the play’s lyricism, from the small (but appreciated) detail of ageing up Juliet, to its comedy, to the choreography of movement (Jade Hackett) and intimacy (Bethan Clark). It tucks its characters and audience members inside a bubble of humour and affection, only slightly tainted by forthcoming, before falling into the thunder and darkness of the second half. It takes this iconic story into its hands, cradles it gently, rewrites it with care, and rips apart the faded pages of previous versions. Romeo & Juliet will run until the 18 November at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review


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