Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 5 July, 2000

Director Michael Boyd has declared his dislike for what often seems to be an overly reverential and hermetic RSC attitude towards Shakespeare. His dedication to presenting Shakespeare's plays as enjoyable theatrical events ("I'm a sort of blowsy, lapsed Brechtian without the Puritanism," he has also said of himself) led last year to a remarkable Midsummer Night's Dream, generally reckoned to be second in living memory only to Peter Brook's, but only the year before that to a Much Ado About Nothing just as universally execrated. Now Boyd's Romeo And Juliet shows the same strain of thoughtful elucidation, and falls somewhere between the two extremes as a modest success.

Its strengths include Ian Hogg's wonderful Capulet, a patrician capo who can stamp his authority on events without often needing even to hint at the powers he holds in reserve; when Juliet refuses to wed the county Paris, Capulet's slap across her face is the more shocking because it shows how far beyond his wonted composure her father has moved. Eileen McCallum as the Nurse is not an ageing gossip but an amiable one, with a playfulness reminiscent of the old 7:84 stage style. Adrian Schiller's Mercutio is openly bored stiff by Romeo's indulgent lovesickness; during Mercutio's duel with Tybalt, David Tennant's Romeo repeatedly and forcefully throws them apart before the fatal thrust.

Other notes may be attractive or off-putting according to taste. Des McAleer's gentle Northern Irish accent combines with a solemn characterisation to turn Friar Laurence into a sort of Franciscan Puritan, the sort one could almost imagine chaining up Verona's playground swings on the Lord's day. As the tragic conclusion gathers pace, the ghosts of Mercutio and Tybalt (later joined by that of Paris) sit stop the curved rampart of Tom Piper's set to observe the proceedings.

Tennant's Romeo dispenses quickly with the adolescent whine of his opening lines to hit plausible stride as an impassioned but confused young man. But at the centre of the production stands Alexandra Gilbreath's Juliet. Let me be careful how I phrase my reservations here: it is not that Gilbreath is too old to play Juliet it is not physically, visibly unbelievable that she is cast as a girl not yet fourteen years of age but she is too mature to do so, in psychological terms. She is an actor who already has roles such as Hedda Gabler and Hermione in The Winter's Tale under her belt, and one who brings great psychological insight and wisdom to a character. This is where her Juliet unsettles me: an initial phase of wide-eyed wonder (including a fine rendition with Tennant of the banquet "duet" of knotted, semi-articulate infatuation) which, although Gilbreath is obviously playing the attitude, is not a major strain on credibility is swiftly and utterly succeeded by the portrayal of a woman who has evidently learnt and resolved vast amounts. True, Juliet's character develops rapidly during the play, but not this rapidly or to this extent. Perverse as it sounds, Gilbreath does too good a job of illuminating Juliet's words and feelings. As with Boyd's production as a whole, her characterisation keeps one constantly engaged, but also in two minds about the nature of the engagement.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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