Review: Romeo and Juliet (Liverpool Everyman)
Nick Bagnall directs Shakespeare's tragedy with a twist
Show number five from the reborn Everyman rep company comes with the kind of audacious conceptual flourish that audiences often expect, even demand, from this theatre.
Down at the Everyman's buttoned-up sister venue, the Liverpool Playhouse, regulars might even still gasp at the notion of Romeo and Juliet becoming a dubstep-fuelled gay love story – with a Julius rather than a Juliet – but up here on Hope Street, it all seems par for the course and is accepted with barely a shrug.
To an extent, that just shows how far we have come. But on the other hand, for a fast-moving, sliced and diced production that strives to be less Shakespeare, more Bardcore, it does mean the show's fundamental dare ends up being a bit too "So what?" rather than the hoped for "WTF?!" Not that there isn't plenty to enjoy in this grinding, bass-driven take on the play.
In this version, directed by Nick Bagnall, a seething mass of talent from the Everyman's youth wing joins the 14 rep company regulars for the season's Shakespearean climax. The rival dynasties are played as gangster families, both ruled by the kind of shiny-suited patriarchs who might once have propped up an episode of Only Fools and Horses, and each has its own legion of street-fighting scallies sniffing out blood.
The injection of youthful cut and thrust gives the impressive set-pieces a jolt of dangerous energy: the Capulet ball pulses like a night down at Fabric, while Mercutio and Tybalt grapple and thud like the very best World of Sport wrestling, 1970s style.
But if this wriggling, electrified bloodlust gives the show its punch and makes the first half in particular so enjoyable, it also throws the strangely bloodless central relationship into unfortunate relief.
George Caple (Romeo) and Elliott Kingsley (Julius) struggle to either ignite their forbidden spark or manifest the darkness and misery that must entomb them, and without the delicacy of touch to make the poetry ring true, the second half begins to weigh a little heavier than it should.
Instead, it's the supporting roles that give this production its richness. As a tumbling, taunting Mercutio, Dean Nolan rounds off a brilliant run of Everyman performances, and it's a shame this is his last transformation of the season. Melanie La Barrie is irresistible as the Nurse, done up like Frida Kahlo and delivering the kind of conspiratorial wisdom that would help any aching heart beat a little less painfully. And Richard Bremmer's Friar Laurence is measured and precise – the real Shakespearean deal in a production that sometimes plays rather too fast and loose with all that troublesome verse.
For a show that repeatedly asks, "Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't've?", this Romeo and Juliet never really administers the transgressive sexual love-bite it wants to. But if you like a few whirling nunchucks with your Shakespeare, it's still got plenty of clout.
Romeo and Juliet runs at Liverpool Everyman until 28 June.