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Romeo And Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

(Rated 2/ 5 )

Bloodless Bard in Mafia Sicily

By Paul Taylor
Thursday, 20 April 2006

The Royal Shakespeare Company kicks off its year-long Complete Works Festival with a production of Romeo and Juliet. This is not a piece that cries out for rediscovery or reinvestigation. So it seems a strange choice as the starting-point for a season of adventure.

Nancy Meckler's main-stage production looks a little weighed down by the responsibility of it all. It's so determined to resist the shop-worn and the obvious and to provide the work with an arresting new frame that the drama itself often lacks the requisite volatile immediacy.

Romeo and Juliet is presented - in its entirety and with no additional dialogue - as a play-within-a-play. It's as though Shakespeare's tragedy is being performed by two modern mafia families who at the start are seen surrendering their weapons in a public amnesty. The piece unfolds on a rectangular wooden platform, watched by the actors who sit at the side of the inner stage on chairs.

Puzzlingly, though, the context for this attempt at reconciliatory drama looks, from the lights and the scaffolding in Katrina Lindsay's design, to be an outdoor Italian film-set. Is some maverick director planning to make a movie of the project?

This is left irritatingly unclear. What you might have expected, though, is that a sense of tensions within the mafiosi cast would intensify the play's atmosphere of danger. Will these young men be able to keep their tribal antagonism confined to theatrical simulation?

There is one alarming, adrenalin-charged sequence when, in the course of a fight, Rupert Evans, as Romeo, accidentally hits Adam Rayner's Tybalt in the face and the latter reacts to this deviation from the script by springing a knife on him - team-work abandoned for a few vertiginous moments as the underlying hatred erupts.

Elsewhere, the production's perversely stylised approach to Verona's civic brawls - the men click their heels like enraged flamenco dancers and whirl, as weapons, long wooden poles with which they bash the stage - saps the violence of its youthful, hot-headed impulsiveness. It comes across as too trained and formal and bloodless to evoke surging unpredictability.

I've witnessed some egregious attempts to avoid cliché in the balcony scene - such as the lovers swinging on trapezes at different heights, with Romeo desperately trying to grab Juliet. But this one - which has Juliet shinning back and forth from a subterranean bedroom to the top of a thin tower of scaffolding, with Romeo in gymnastic pursuit - looks like a freeing-up exploratory exercise that should have been left in the rehearsal room.

It must be the first time that the hero, dangling above her, has ever looked down on the heroine. There's an ease of access that destroys the iconic yearning in the episode.

Morven Christie's dark-maned slip of a Juliet projects humour, intelligence warmth and the sense of girl who knows her own mind. The character's progress into a deeper self-understanding is beautifully charted and there's a piercing pathos in those scenes where, having surpassed her parents in emotional maturity, she attempts to reason them out of their insensitive folly.

Appearing and sounding as if she has strayed in from Juno and the Paycock, Sorcha Cusack's Irish Nurse partners her vividly and has the grace to look ashamed when she betrays Juliet with her slippery pragmatism. Evans's handsome, if colourless Romeo, lets you see the strain of the hero's earlier attempts to laugh off seriousness in front of his friends, but, for my taste, does not advance much beyond a febrile, self-pitying recognition of fate.

A black-garbed female chorus wail Sicilian chants and the two chastened families exit into the dawn with their arms round one another. But far from making the experience more powerful, the framing device seems a way of camouflaging the fact that this is a small-scale production masquerading as a large one.

To 14 October (0870 609 1110)

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