Albery Theatre, London WC2
Opened 21 December, 2004

The RSC's Tragedies season in Stratford earlier this year was generally considered to be... not quite underwhelming, but let's say just whelming. Toby Stephens' Hamlet and Corin Redgrave's King Lear divided opinion sharply, whilst productions of Macbeth and Romeo And Juliet did little to kindle any intensity of feeling. In the series of brief runs at the Albery, it's currently the turn of Peter Gill's Romeo And Juliet. It feels a little sharper than in Stratford, but still fundamentally bland.

Narratively and visually, it's clear as a bell. Gill even opts for that rarity, staging in Renaissance costumes, with the young men in bum-hugging tights and all. The feuding families are colour-coded: the Montagues dress in blue, the Capulets in red (which makes Romeo and chums' masks pretty ineffective as disguises when they crash Capulet's ball, but what the hey). Simon Daw's set, consisting principally of a large bit of architectural frontage, does the job without getting too exuberant about it.

Matthew Rhys as Romeo begins as a thoughtful young man in love (with the never-seen Rosalind), then falls to definitively for Juliet that, when quizzed about his night's escapades by Friar Laurence, he takes a few seconds even to remember who Rosalind is. Sian Brooke begins as a smart, almost precociously pert young Juliet; however, when she should acquire tragic gravitas as things go awry in the second half of the play, Brooke instead grows fluttery. One can rationalise such a portrayal, but I'd rather not have to.

Gill's scrupulous directorial approach has somewhere along the way overlooked the passion. The couple's first kisses now possess, as they didn't before, a certain charge, but on the whole there's little sense of the great amorous conflagration that leads to so many misfortunate consequence amongst the warring Veronese clans. The strongest performance is June Watson's as Juliet's Nurse, concerned and loving yet never quite on the same wavelength. (It was an hour or so before I realised that Watson was not in fact actress Eileen McCallum; this is a compliment.)

Gill's production tells the story, and hints at the passions therein, but never displays them. Still, it performs a useful role in the current array of West End shows, by providing a "ground state" reading of the play, as it were, which can then be seen as (no pun intended) a jumping-off point for the exuberant aerial Icelandic production at the Playhouse.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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