Mark Fisher finds merit in a new version of Romeo and Juliet - set in space

WAS Shakespeare an English astronaut? It's a question worthy of Erich von Daniken. Yet the evidence is plain to see. Isn't it obvious, for example, that the Bard of Avon was thinking of intergalactic travel rather than romance when he made his lovers ''star-crossed''? When Romeo said, ''Juliet is the sun'', can there be any doubt he was thinking in astral terms? Why else was Juliet so determined not to swear by the ''inconstant moon''? Did she or did she not suggest that after Romeo's death, they should ''take him and cut him out in little stars''? Yes, indeed, William Shakespeare anticipated the space age by several centuries, and to prove the point, the English Shakespeare Company is calling at His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen with a futuristic Romeo and Juliet set on the Planet Verona.

If I add that Malachi Bogdanov's production also features a set of dance-floor mixes by a band of

trance-culture groovers known as The Egg, you'd have some justification for caution. Isn't this one Shakespearean gimmick too far? Going on Bogdanov's track record to date, possibly not. He it was who directed a Richard III on the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe so good we gave it a Herald Angel. This play of ruthless ambition and bloody politics was staged by Bogdanov as if in a kindergarten. The soldiers had plastic swords and hobby horses, and Richard's finest hour was in a castle of the bouncy variety. It was uncommonly funny, yet considerably more than a gimmick. By setting it among children, Bogdanov demonstrated the emotional immaturity and the primitive impulses that underscore the play's brutality.

Last year he was back on the Fringe with Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's goriest play, presented by a bunch of decadent Regency fops, hilariously ''naked'' in their bulbous flesh-coloured costumes. Again, the setting was a clever counterpoint to the drama's viciousness.

In short, Bogdanov has no time for traditional, worthy stagings of Shakespeare, but he's not so flippant that he doesn't listen to the text. ''I believe in pushing Shakespeare to its limits,'' he says, adding that his Montagues will be aliens. ''It's not one for the purists. If you see any sci-fi film these days it's an intergalactic racial conflict between different types of being, and that seemed to lend itself to the story of Romeo and Juliet without detracting from the pathos. The play holds up so well to lots of interpretations and I haven't come across a moment when I thought it wasn't working logically with the story.''

He promises the same kind of quirkiness and humour as his recent productions, but in one respect Romeo and Juliet will be different. Richard III and Titus Andronicus were budget productions, performed by a cast of five. It was a necessity that mothered much invention, but it also risked confusing the audience as the actors relentlessly doubled up their roles. This time, Bogdanov is hitting the big HMT stage with a cast of 11, propelled sky-high thanks to specialist training from Damian Partington who also worked on the Millennium Dome's aerial show.

''A small cast forces you to be creative,'' says Bogdanov. ''You're constantly being economical with the movement, the characters, the set, and the time. When you go up a level, you've been very well trained to be economical with the 11 actors. I treat them as I would the actors in a five-hander in terms of getting the most out of them.''

He adds: ''I work with them as an ensemble, so the actors are always present on stage, being dragged into scenes, filling out the stage and creating physical scenery. I'm glad I'm at that level where I can be experimental with other things.''

It'll be Shakespeare, Jim, but not as we know it.

n Romeo and Juliet, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, today until Saturday