There’s been a reluctance to cast Romeo and Juliet with actors approaching the age of the characters. It’s understandable that directors shy away from casting 13-year olds as Juliet – one can take verisimilitude too far - but there have been too many occasions in the past when the central characters have been played by actors more than 20 years too old.

This is not an accusation that can be levelled at Peter Gill’s production of arguably Shakespeare’s most well-known play. Matthew Rhys and Sian Brooke are a most attractive and youthful pairing. Rhys is especially impressive as a hot-blooded Romeo, and Brooke, shaky at first, visibly grows in confidence throughout the play. There’s some good support too. Gideon Turner is a charismatic Mercutio, long on charm although he loses some of the character’s bitter wit. And there’s an excellent Nurse, courtesy of June Watson.

There are still some strange directorial touches. Leo Wringer’s otherwise impressive Escalus doubles as a Chorus, one who hangs around the stage as if a ghostly presence. Just before Romeo meets Juliet, Wringer indulges in some frantic signalling as if calling an aircraft to land.

I also think some of the bard’s bawdiness has been lost: the double-entendres that Gregory and Sampson indulge in at the start are played down, Mercutio’s baiting of the Nurse is somewhat tame. This is a highly sexually-charged play and the earthiness of some of the language heightens this so it’s a pity to diminish it.

Romeo and Juliet is a difficult play to get right. The youthfulness of the central characters, the frantic plotting (the play relies too much on coincidence and accident to make it a true tragedy in the Aristotelian sense), and our over-familiarity with the story all conspire to make this hard work for directors. Gill and the RSC have made a fair stab at this: it doesn’t always work, but it’s a production that appeals more than most.

- Maxwell Cooter

NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from April 2004 and this production’s original run at Stratford.

Romeo and Juliet: the greatest love story ever told or simply a tragic tale of young lovers?

Certainly, under the direction of Peter Gill, the bard’s classic account of the star-crossed lovers has never been so clear nor so pacy. For, at two hours 45 minutes, including interval, this latest Royal Shakespeare Company production is slick, polished and super-efficient in its telling.

And therein lies the problem. It’s not that Gill’s isn’t a generally excellent production, far from it; rather that, in its efficiency and professionalism, we perhaps lose some of the soaring highs and lows.

Matthew Rhys makes his RSC debut as Romeo, and what an introduction it is. Intense and single-minded, full of emotion and honesty, his is an intelligent performance; his raging despair upon hearing the news of his banishment is worth the ticket price alone.

Conversely, Sian Brooke’s Juliet tries hard to measure up but with not nearly the same level of success. Admittedly, there’s an inherent problem in having the experience and maturity to play Juliet, yet still portraying a convincing 13-year-old, and while Brooke certainly looks the part, she shows little of young love’s feistiness or desperation. At times, you suspect she has no more feeling for Romeo than her intended suitor, Paris (Jonathan Forbes).

Worse, while Rhys’ Romeo steals the accolades on his own, he gleans little from his scenes with Brooke, who, in his presence, comes across as at best distant and at worst cold. Given that the tragedy of the lovers’ story takes place over such a short timeframe, their attraction and passion must be felt from the outset or, as in this case, the final death scenes become void of emotion.

The pair are well supported by June Watson’s devoted Nurse, Gideon Turner’s hilarious Mercutio, John Normington’s likeable Friar Laurence and Peter Bygott as a strong Old Capulet. And the company in general offers some of the most flawless speaking of Shakespeare’s verse; so natural and tuneful I began to wonder if parts had been written afresh.

Simon Daw’s set, featuring little more than one large archway as a centrepiece, and Deirdre Clancy’s costume design, each create a pleasing sense of renaissance.

Not a flawless or definitive Romeo and Juliet by any means, but a pretty fine Romeo at least.

- Elizabeth Ferrie