Barbican Theatre, London EC4
Opened 17 January, 2001

Director Michael Boyd has done some polishing work on his RSC Romeo And Juliet since its Stratford run last year, but on its London opening it remains like the two great curved walls which oppose each other across Tom Piper's set: strong, even impressive, but overall grey.

Although this is a play whose tragic momentum only begins to gather around half-way through, I don't recall the first half being played so consistently for comedy in Stratford. There is a clearer kinship than I had thought between David Tennant's Romeo in these early acts and the other, more overtly comic roles he gives us this season: sometimes self-consciously, as when he embarks on a semi-ritual battle of wits with Mercutio, sometimes simply manifest in a natural throwaway cadence given to minor lines. In fact, Adrian Schiller's Mercutio seems to take his fun much more seriously than Romeo: Schiller's Queen Mab speech seems curiously weightier than Tennant's romantic melancholy which it is intended to dispel.

Other fine touches which had escaped me first time around include the Capulets' ball, at which Juliet is visibly apprehensive during her dance with Paris, trying not to do anything that would put off this important noble as her suitor, until she spies Romeo who has been gazing at her for some minutes; their eyes lock, and where Juliet had once feared to meet Paris's eye she is now discreetly glancing around him to Romeo. Ian Hogg's Capulet is still a bluff clan tyrant whose violence is sheathed in smiles for as long as he gets his own way; Des McAleer's Friar Laurence still seems excessively grave throughout, treating his opening soliloquy as a sombre homily and growing more morose from there.

Alexandra Gilbreath's Juliet, too, seems a little less forced in her youthfulness during the first phase and a little less over-mature in the second, but those characteristics remain palpable. Shakespeare wrote the character as pretty much turning on a sixpence, gaining an entire lifetime's burden of experience in the instant the Nurse tells her of Romeo's banishment; however, it is surely up to actors and directors to smooth out this disjunction rather than to leave it glaring fidelity is not always the best policy. Gilbreath is a tremendous actress, but we should be able to forget this when watching Juliet, and we can never quite do so.

In general, the early laughs can persist a little too long: when I saw the show on its final preview before formal opening night, some of the audience were still tittering occasionally almost through to the final scene. Nor do those ghosts of the dead Tybalt, Mercutio and (later) Paris peering down on the action from the ramparts really have any point. Boyd's production is even clearer than before in terms of comprehensibility, but alas shows no signs of becoming nearly as passionate as the play needs to be.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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