Time flies past like arrows, Shaw said. With Shakespeare, it’s words which fly past us like arrows. Some hit their target, a lot don’t, yet the sheer thrill to the senses such words arouse is difficult to ignore. And when they do land in your consciousness, they leave an indelible mark.
With Romeo and Juliet, the plot is well known enough to us that we don’t have to worry too much about Shakespeare’s gluttonous language – we can simply revel in the story itself.
In this production the job is made a lot easier for the audience under the fast-paced and humorous direction of Nicholai La Barrie.
The production has strong echoes of Guys and Dolls (not least in the ’50s-style costumes and propelling music), and the sparse setting is offset by the frenetic movements of the actors as they tussle over territory.
Love, however, as Romeo (Conor Glean) finds out, is the most brutal battlefield there is and as the play progresses towards it tragic and inevitable end, we see how entrenched positions can only end in tragedy.
La Barrie has said that he has tried to inject a Mancunian flavour to the show and reflect the cosmopolitan nature of the city, its diverse communities and cultures and the production manifestly succeeds in that respect. Perhaps, also, in the wasteful futility of knife crime and gang culture, though that is less obvious in the show.
There is some rich ensemble acting on display. A standout performance is given by David Judge as Mercutio, provocatively bounding and strutting across the stage and sparring with Romeo in twisting word play. His braggadocio ultimately costs him his life, but Judge delivers such a superb performance that you feel he would rather die in glory than live in fear.
There are laugh out loud moments for those who think Shakespeare is too serious for them: the famous scene where Romeo first woos Juliet (Shalisha James-Davis) by moonlight is a brilliant comic turn from both actors. And in fact, it is Romeo who is found wanting this time: brave in battle, hesitant in love, he is scolded by Juliet for his temerity.
Gemma Ryan delivers a strong comic performance as Juliet’s nurse, her Yorkshire accent a source of ridicule from Mercutio (whose own Manc accent undercuts his performance). When we see Ryan carrying shopping bags from Morrisons across the stage, we know this is a production rooted in real life as we live it today.
This being Shakespeare it is a long haul, with the show coming in at more than two-and-a-half hours. But the strength of the production lies in the fact that the time flies by and when we come to the final scene where the star-crossed lovers meet their fate, we feel like the story has only just begun.
Romeo and Juliet is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 20 October to 18 November 2023. Age guidance 12+