"What puts people off Shakespeare is that it is monumentalised. One has to treat it reverentially.

“For the Elizabethan audience it was mass entertainment – what you did on your day out to the South Bank. We try to recapture that side of it, without losing any of the dignity or poetry.”

So says Dr Steve Purcell, director of Romeo And Juliet, which is being performed by open air company The Pantaloons on their second Brighton Festival Fringe visit.

Just watching footage of their reworking of The Taming Of The Shrew from last year, it is obvious this is not Shakespeare as we know it.

The performance by the five-strong cast used original songs, custard pies, bright costumes, obviously fake beards and audience suggestions to deliver what they dubbed Shakespeare’s most controversial play.

“You can count on one hand the plays that Shakespeare wrote that didn’t have a clown in them,” says Steve. “Even full-blown tragedies have a clowning sequence in them.

“Often the clowning sections are cut out because they don’t work any more - they are making Elizabethan puns or jokes that people don’t get.”

Romeo And Juliet suits the way the company works, bringing together the tragedy and poetry of Shakespeare with Steve’s “anarchic clowning”.

“There are a lot of clownish characters in Romeo And Juliet,” says Steve. “Up until the moment where Mercutio dies it is straight-down-the-line comedy.

“It follows the conventions and looks to be heading towards a comic ending, with the young lovers split by their families, the rowdy friends and the funny servants. Then, all of a sudden, it goes wrong.”

The Pantaloons have been performing free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe since 2005, and the fact they don’t cost anything to watch is important to the company.

“Shakespeare wrote for a popular audience, which is something we have lost now,” says Steve. “Most Shakespeare feels very elitist, like something only the relatively well-off and well-educated can go to. We wanted to make Shakespeare accessible in a place where anyone can see it.

“It also keeps us on our toes artistically, as people can get up and walk away at any time. We have to make sure we are telling the story in a dramatic, interesting and involving way, which is really hard work.

“We have cut the play down to an hour and a quarter, but we find it almost as exhausting as the full text. We are still going through the emotional journey, just a bit faster.”

As well as the weather problem common to all open air productions, the cast also have the difficulties of performing in an open public space.

“In a way that’s part of the challenge,” says Steve. “In Elizabethan theatre they would have to contend with rowdy audiences. “When you get a dog running through the space, or a small child wandering on, or three teenagers on bikes circling you and swearing at you, it becomes part of the show.

“You can’t ignore it. You can reference it with an ad-lib or find a way within the words Shakespeare gives you. The audience loves it – it feels inclusive.”

  • Starts 4.30pm, 2pm shows on Sunday and Monday, free. Call 01273 709709.