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Romeo & Juliet

Oxford Mail, 2nd April 1976, Don Chapman

There is one moment of magic in Trevor Nunn’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which launches the 1976 season at Stratford-upon-Avon.

As Romeo cradles the limp body of Juliet in his arms and prepares to swallow the fatal poison the life starts to return to her fingers and her hand to curl round his neck

It is what Prof. Nevill Coghill once described as a moment of pure theatre when the director kids you into believing that a tragedy against all the odds is going to have a happy ending.  

But unfortunately  the production itself does not have quite the same air of magic. The ‘Wooden O’ with its token row of spectators in the galleries at the back of the stage which John Napier has devised for the season is reasonable enough.

And so is the direction, especially the impressive brawl scene, where Michael Pennington’s somewhat flashy performance as Mercutio at last achieves ironic stature, and the discovery of the ‘dead’ Juliet, where Marie Kean reaps the full rewards of her earthy Irish portrayal of the Nurse.

The trouble lies with the Romeo and to a lesser extent with the Juliet. Ian McKellan tries hard to convey impetuous youthful athleticism but with his bounding gait and costume suggests rather a cross between Nureyev and Norman Wisdom.

Francesca Annis is a demure gigglepot, who pretends to be a schoolgirl but is obviously well into her twenties (?) suspects in a vain attempt to provide a reasonable foil for Mr McKellan’s Romeo.

Once all the talk about her being not yet 14 is over and forgotten her performance grows considerably in stature and her passion is obviously real. But Mr McKellan never comes to terms with Romeo. Even the lightning physical reaction with which he punctuates: ‘Soft, what is that light through yonder window breaks?’ is actor’s artifice.

The supporting cast is competent rather that outstanding with Paul Shelley giving perhaps the most convincing and natural performance as Tybalt. But the ex-Oxford actor, Richard Durden, makes a fair debut as Paris.

Financial Times, 7th July 1977, Michael Coveney

It seems usual for the RSC Stratford productions to improve in transit to the Aldwych. This show is no exception. In fact, Trevor Nunn and his marvellous company have effected a quite astonishing transformation since last summer’s opening night. Gone is the confusing hurly burly of the opening scenes, gone the uncontrolled hysteria of the of the senior Montagues and Capulets. This difficult play is gloriously restored to us as a tale of tragic domestic strife, a beautifully unravelled narrative told with breathtaking assurance and style.

Ian McKellan is still very much one of the young, swaggering Montague blades, but his performance has sharpened and deepened beyond recognition. At the ball, he dances joyously alone on the upper level, subtly blending the reality of his awakening love for Juliet with a strikingly flirtatious disposition. He is quick, intelligent and impressionable, forever finding fresh resonance and passion in his verse.

And Michael Pennington’s Mercutio is now a truly brilliant interpretation: a magnetic leader of the pack whose mocking braggadocio is an attractive cover for perceptive behavioural criticism. Mercutio’s death is superbly staged; he leaps at Tybalt, kissing him full on the mouth before dying with a wound his companions believe to be another practical joke. Their horror and sorrow is all the more forceful in the end.

David Waller has tightened his reading of Friar Lawrence considerably and his realisation that Romeo’s liaison with Juliet could have a curative effect on the family squabble emerges as crucial to the production. Mr Nunn stages much of the action as a series of intensely experienced scenes between two or three people, while the larger set-pieces decorate the central tensions with a telling power.

Nowhere is this better achieved than in the arrival of the wedding party at Juliet’s ‘death-bed,’ where the background jubilation is sensitively elided to a mourning exodus. The servant Peter’s scene with the musicians is played uncut, providing a poignant opportunity for Richard Griffiths to round off a truly touching performance with a lyrical expression of private grief.

As Juliet, Francesca Annis matches Mr McKellan for freshness and intelligence, playing her imaginative misgivings before consuming the Friar’s vial more memorably than I have ever experienced. She catches perfectly that balance between impetuous girlishness and maturity of reflection necessary for a great Juliet. Particularly good is her scheming determination in following the Friar’s instructions while temporarily satisfying her father’s sturdy command to marry Paris. John Woodvine’s Capulet is another vastly improved performance, although at this point in the review I am prepared to concede that I may be doing all concerned a serious injustice in so thoroughly revising all previous opinions. Could it be that I am merely waking up to the merits that were always there in the first place?

There is a fine Irish Nurse (Marie Kean), a strong Paris (Richard Durden), a splendid Benvolio (Roger Rees) and a plethora of excellently defined performances right the way down the cast list. I have never enjoyed “Romeo and Juliet” so much and I can only suggest that here is further evidence of the remarkable groundwork put in by this company over the past couple of years. They promise much for the future and I suspect that in two or three more years we shall look back and begin to appreciate the silent revolution on which Mr Nunn and his colleagues are now engaged.

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