ROMEO AND JULIET. William Shakespeare. Leicester Haymarket.
Ever since Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film of Romeo and Juliet, the tragic tale of Verona's "star-crossed lovers" has been a keen favourite with young audiences. Now director Nona Shepphard's version, billed as "the greatest love story ever told", is set in 17th-century India, a decision which, she says, "suits Shakespeare's robust, in-your-face language".
An Indian interpretation, says Shepphard, "also clarifies the notion of fixed strata in society and the custom of arranged marriage", both of which are crucial to understanding the world of the play.
Avoiding the more familiar setting of the Raj, she chose an earlier era, when the first Europeans arrived in India "in search of spices and Christians". Set in Surat, "not long after the first production of Romeo and Juliet in London", this version recasts Friar Lawrence as a missionary and adds religious animosity to racial tensions. The Capulets (played by Asian actors, including Shobna Gulati from Victoria Wood's Dinnerladies) are Muslims while the Montagues (played by white actors) are Christians.
Shepphard may offend purists because she has amalgamated the two parts of Lord and Lady Montague, "who says absolutely nothing anyway", into one female role, "a very doughty woman who's dealing with a dangerous situation."
Making the Montagues white "inverts the situation of Asian immigration - here it's theBrits who are in a minority". This locates "the bigotry and hatred between the two families in mutual suspicion and fear", says Shepphard. "It helps make sense of the extreme animosity between the two families. In other productions, often you don't see why they're fighting."
It also makes the play relevant to present-day Leicester's multicultural society. With a white Romeo and an Asian Juliet, the transgressive aspect of their love affair comes across much more strongly. "We're trying to get away from the idea of Romeo as limp and mooching," says Shepphard. "Here, he's more energetic and lusty."
She sees the key to his character in the life he leads "on the streets with Benvolio and Mercutio, his mates", an early example perhaps of "lad culture".
By contrast, Juliet is "very alone. She is deserted by everyone she thought she could rely on, including the Nurse," says Shepphard. "In the play, she grows up very quickly because she's left with only her own resources." The weight of parental authority - when she is forced to marry Paris - is heavily underlined.
Shepphard plans to make Romeo and Juliet a play within a play, with a mixed company of Indian storytellers and European strolling players deciding to put on a performance. She is also trimming the text "to give it that headlong impetus, like the pace of Romeo and Juliet's love".
Aleks Sierz February 17 to March 11. Box office: 0116 253 9797