The Manchester Shakespeare Company is determined not to be a one-trick pony. They follow the broad comedy of their modern day version of Measure for Measure with a socially aware adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
However, rather than explain the motivation of the characters in simple terms of racial prejudice, writers John Topliff and Hannah Ellis ambitiously insert further sub plots, adding to the complexity of an over long play. The structure of the play is uneven. The exploration of social issues in the first half is so leisurely that the brutal change of pace in the second, when the play shifts into a much more satisfying psychological thriller, feels disjointed.
By virtue of hard work, immigrant Kamil Capulet (Nakib Narrat) inherits the Montague garage and so incurs the enmity of the owner’s birth family. Kamil is delighted when Juliet (Elouise Bracewell), the daughter from his first marriage, visits. Unfortunately, Rosaline (Amy Gavin), the emotionally fragile daughter of his current partner, makes the mistake of introducing Juliet to her boyfriend, Romeo (Dean Gregory).
Directors Gina T Frost and Matt Cawson emphasise the modern day setting and pay tribute to the source material. Shakespeare’s famous balcony scene is played with the lovers flirting on Facebook. But there are aspects of the plot that require attention. Gavin is not allowed to bring out the frightening manipulative side of Rosaline until well into the second Act. In the first, her insecurities are made clear by the theatrical device of having Andrew Grogan act as an ‘inner voice’ and shadow Gavin articulating her anxieties.
Delaying the revelation of Rosaline’s true nature may have shock value, but it deprives the first Act of some desperately needed tension. More significantly, disguising Rosaline’s ability to deceive makes the character seem shallow, raising the question of how she could have attracted Romeo. It is also unclear why Romeo would court a woman from a family with whom he is in conflict.
The crowded plot requires the cast to flesh out the characters – a task they rise to admirably. Gregory and Bracewell have a relaxed natural chemistry that makes the scenes between the lovers completely convincing. Narrat suggests that Kamil’s altruism is motivated by an element of guilt at having effectively disinherited the Montagues.
There is a strong undertone of violence from James Oates‘ tightly wound hard man made good. But the script does not always provide convincing characters. Sam Beresford‘s effing and blinding racist feels like a throwback now that extremists are skilled at appearing to be reasonable chaps. The character is too repellent to be effective as a comic device.
The second Act is the better of the two. Frost and Cawson provide a burst of realistic and deeply shocking violence that sets the play moving towards its tragic climax and Gavin finally begins spinning her web of deceit. It is hard, however, not to feel that such developments would have been more effective at an earlier point in the play.
The play itself might have worked better as a straightforward psychological thriller than the ambitious but confused blend of kitchen sink drama and thriller.
Before Juliet is at the Three Minute Theatre until 22 March.