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Feeling the heat

Passions not politics fuel this 'Romeo and Juliet' set in Spain. Timothy Ramsden previews a high-hormone production

The world will always welcome lovers. Teachers love set play productions so Romeo and Juliets proliferate. After Neil Bartlett's Hammersmith-Leeds sortie comes inveterate Shakespeare director Glen Walford with her fifth Romeo, cast in the Welsh tones which she believes fit snugly with Shakespearean verse.

She's moved the setting too - to Spain, land of hot blood and sun, bullfights and flamenco. We're promised an Edgar Allan Poe gothic feel, all flickering torches, in the final tomb scene - "terror with a big T" - but elsewhere there's no greater constrast than with Bartlett's dark, bare stage production.

In this land of rhythm and spectacle she contrasts the free-ranging, gypsy-like Montagues with the status-conscious Capulets. Youth culture rules; if Lady Capulet married at the age she tries to hitch her daughter to Paris she would be only 28. And the Nurse is "no old crab - she's very much alive. " Friar Laurence too, a naive idealist, is only one step from a noviceand a hippy who is into alternative medicine.

Walford's focus is on passions more than politics. Mercutio she finds severly sexually repressed, like Tybalt. From this grows their fighting. She speaks too of the rape fantasies in the Capulet servants' threats against the Montague women. No wonder she thinks this Shakespeare's most bawdy play.

But this is to balance the lyricism and love, which is itself the bringer of tragedy. Unashamedly, Walford goes back to the standard Elizabethan World Picture, with its idea of natural harmony broken by - here - disordering passion. It is not love itself, but the exclusivity of Romeo and Juliet's passion, its disregard of social pressures, that sees them like "two fires colliding". Destiny plays its part, but events are rooted in the star-crossed lovers' natures. And by their unconditional love for Romeo and Juliet respectively, Friar Laurence and the Nurse assist the tragedy.

All this is vital for Walford and chimes in with a contemporary artist's vision. The 90-year-old composer Michael Tippett, currently being celebrated at the Barbican in London, speaks of the "comely" and the "beautiful" as ideas we have put at risk in giving the modern soul over to technology and science. For Walford, the modern predisposition cuts out faith in nature - and she reminds us that Shakespeare experienced the move from country to city.

So expect a high-testosterone production with a strong element of comedy. The Friar especially has scope for humour in Walford's view. Yet passion is clearly linked to violence. And she is determined to cut the text to give a maximum playing time of two and a half hours. No bad thing perhaps - youth is an itchy, rapid time. But beneath the brightness and swirl there will be a serious beat on the way human passions disrupt natural harmony. Not that the point is meant didactically. This isn't some safe sex advert. On the contrary, Walford says "It's a huge lesson, though we'll never learn it. I hope."

Cardiff, Sherman Theatre to March 4, then March 13-25. Tours to Swansea Grand March 7-11, Bangor Theatre Gwynedd March 28-April 1, Mold Theatre Clwyd April 4-8.

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