ROMEO AND JULIET
Westminster Theatre, London SW1
Opened 13 January, 2000

When even Romeo's death-spasm draws a snigger from the audience, it is safe to assume that something has gone dreadfully wrong. In this case, it is director Martin Scott Gilmore.

Gilmore's United Spirits Theatre company sets out impressively: a multicultural cast and company including talents from areas as diverse as dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures, campy pop terrorists Minty and R&B boyband MN8, and a residency at the sizeable if under-used Westminster Theatre on the strength of Gilmore's first ever shot at directing last year. He clearly has an admirable overall vision, nicely realised in Annabel Hills's spare yet versatile stage design, George Moes's costumes and Neil Kaczor's score. It is astute, too, to cast across races within both Montague and Capulet families rather than succumb to a facile racial concept although the inclusion of a Noh/Kabuki-style interlude during the Capulets' ball seems a pretty gratuitous attempt to exploit the presence in the cast of a Japanese woman.

Where Gilmore lets himself down horribly is in direction. He seems to think it is entirely a matter of instructing his actors in vocal inflexions and gestures rather than taking any wider view of characterisation, still less of unlocking the meaning in the text. At least in its first half, Romeo And Juliet has much of the linguistic density and exuberance that characterised Shakespeare's earlier plays. A young cast needs guiding through this; before they can make us understand their figures of speech, the actors must do so themselves. Gilmore signally fails in this respect, leaving his actors either to clutch wildly at half-glimpsed meanings or simply to gabble their lines. The language settles down as the tragic ending grows inevitable, so that for instance Mujahid Khan's Romeo can slow down from the gallop with which he speaks his earlier lines and become merely excessively actorly in his delivery. By this time, though, the audience has been lost, and the tittering begins.

Gilmore evidently considers that la compagnie, c'est lui; his programme note even contains the hubristic remark, "I was honoured to be invited to become the Westminster Theatre's resident company", as well as old testimonials from the likes of his drama school principal. Gilmore seems to have taken his earlier praise at face value; the prospects appear slim that he will recognise how far short of his own rhetoric his directing work falls.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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