Review: Romeo and Juliet (Liverpool Everyman)

 

The closing play of the Everyman’s very successful 2017 repertory company season gives Shakespeare’s classic tragedy a raw, contemporary edge.

The idea of presenting Verona’s warring Montague and Capulet families as modern knife-wielding gangs is maybe not that new – West Side Story and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film with Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo both took a similar approach – but making the focus of the play a gay relationship (in which Juliet becomes ‘Julius’) is pretty novel. In some ways it’s a logical twist, giving the young lovers’ rebellion against their elders’ expectations an added layer of transgression. And the gender swapping doesn’t stop there: in order for the re-imagined plot to work, Count Paris (who Juliet’s parents want her to marry) becomes a countess. Romeo’s loyal friend Benvolio is also a girl, played very convincingly by the young actress Isobel Balchin. Juliet’s bullying father Lord Capulet disappears from the play completely, giving Julius’s mother a more prominent role (and many of Capulet’s original lines) as the fearsome matriarch of the Capulet gang.

Shakespeare’s plays never seem to lose their relevance, and gang warfare and arranged marriages must be regular hot topics for discussion in schools and colleges today. Director Nick Bagnall has said he wants the production to appeal to young people, and with its fast pace (the text has been significantly edited down), predominantly youthful cast, dynamic action sequences and of course a generous dash of romance it will surely succeed. It helps that the Everyman’s repertory company of actors are joined by nearly 30 members of YEP (Young Everyman Playhouse, the theatre’s initiative for younger actors). When they’re all on stage for an expertly choreographed gang fight early on it’s quite a spectacle.Liverpool Everyman: Romeo & Juliet.

It’s also fitting that this final play of the season should feature all 14 actors from the repertory company. George Caple (Romeo) and Elliott Kingsley (Julius) capture well the couple’s mixture of courage, defiance and vulnerability. Dean Nolan is perfect as Romeo’s hotheaded, beer-swilling pal Mercutio. Melanie LaBarrie is excellent as the comically garrulous Nurse, whose hardheaded advice Julius ignores. She also has a mesmerisingly powerful singing voice, which is put to good use at several key points in the play. Richard Bremner caps a string of fine performances with a memorable turn as Friar Laurence (played as an ageing hippie), whose regular pearls of wisdom do not prevent him from inadvertently precipitating the tragedy.

Perhaps because of the sheer size of the cast, the production occasionally feels a touch rough around the edges, but it’s always engaging. If you’re acquainted with any Shakespeare-hating teenagers, try taking them to see this.

**** A vibrant, visceral production, full of energy and ideas

Photos: Gary Calton

Romeo & Juliet continues at the Liverpool Everyman until Wednesday 7 June, then alternates with the repertory company’s other productions until the end of the month. For more information, click HERE.