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Fate and God

Heather Neill hears how religion played its part with Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers

Romeo and Juliet Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until October 22 Tickets and information about workshopsTel: 0161 833 9833

Director Jacob Murray has chosen to set his production of Romeo and Juliet in 1950s Italy, the time of films such as The Bicycle Thieves and La Dolce Vita. "It was a time", he says, "when youth culture was breaking through, but the old ways of doing things were still there, the Catholic church and wealthy aristocrats still important."

Religion, in particular Catholicism, plays an important part in the text and will be a focus of the production: "There is an authority, a gravitas to religious figures, so we do not have a comedy Friar in this production. He binds society together, both families (the Montagues and Capulets) come to him for marriages. He bridges the divide and gets behind the marriage of Romeo and Juliet because he thinks this will heal the feud.

But the Friar is aware that something is 'blocking' him - it might be Fate or Destiny, Accident or God. Or maybe God is powerless, which is terrifying."

The play begins like a comedy. Murray says: "It only starts to go awry when Tybalt and Mercutio get killed. Until then the passage is upward and very funny."

The Friar and the Nurse find themselves unable to stop what's happening:

"They are surrogate parents for Romeo and Juliet. The Nurse is not just a comic figure but a real woman full of animal energy. She is not as intelligent as the Friar, but more emotional and warm."

When things begin to go wrong they are "out of their depth. But Shakespeare doesn't point a finger at anyone. They are all flawed human beings and things just happen too quickly - in a matter of days."

Juliet often seems the more mature of the young lovers. Murray says he is aiming to show an equality between them: "Romeo is the motor for the first half, Juliet for the second. He takes risks, she takes decisions. He is driven too much by impulse, but she lives in a world where she can't act; to get out she either has to be going to confession or has to appear to be dead. Both grow up, she more than he because she is the stronger."

Mercutio has one of the most famous speeches in the play - about Queen Mab.

It is not essential to the plot, but, Murray says, "It is crucial in revealing his haunted quality and creating a sense of magic and mystery".

Murray has a pet theory about this poetic and mercurial character. "I have a hunch," he says, "that he is based on Christopher Marlowe." Playwright Marlowe was Shakespeare's exact contemporary but, like Mercutio, died young in a brawl.

lThere will be a different production of the play at Birmingham Rep from October 4

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