Romeo and Juliet at the NT Olivier

After last year's triumphant Troilus and Cressida and Merchant of Venice, great things were expected of the RNT's Ensemble players. Unfortunately, Tim Supple's new production is a muddled, incoherent, poorly-acted version of this classic love story. The many teenagers in the audiences surely deserved a better introduction to Shakespeare than this.

Like Trevor Nunn's Troilus and Cressida, these warring parties are divided on race. This time, the Capulets are white and the Montagues are black (although there's a white Mercutio, why?) but to confuse matters further, some of the white actors have Irish accents. Is this production a comment on racial tensions? Is it trying to say something about the Northern Ireland peace process? And if so, why do the Prince and his entourage look like a banana republic junta?

Adrian Lee's music doesn't help matters. From the over-the-top jazz-funk intro to the Hammer horror effects that accompany Juliet's musings on the tomb, it is constantly inappropriate and intrusive.

Of course, good acting can soar above any misguided production, but the audience is denied this comfort. Worst offender by far is Charlotte Randle's Juliet who has the arm movements of a demented Thunderbirds puppet. In some scenes, she looks like she's auditioning for a part in Monty Python's famous Wuthering Heights by semaphore. She also seems incapable of speaking verse. The balcony scene contains some of the most beautiful love poetry in the English language: Randle tackles it with all the fervour of a Soviet bureaucrat reciting statistics from the latest five year plan.

Chiwetel Ejiofor's Romeo is much better. With him, we get the glimmer of a character who moves from youthful infatuation to a deep, life-destroying love. And while not a great verse speaker, he at least understands that the words are in verse.

But the supporting cast aren't up to much. Patrick O'Kane's Mercutio is a babbling drunk who spits out his words in such a hurry it's as if he's trying to get rid of their taste. Andy Williams' Tybalt is a lummox of a Yorkshireman with all the menace of a black pudding. And Ronald Pickup's Capulet (who has certainly performed better than this) rages incoherently. Only Beverley Klein's nurse displays any warmth and feeling for the play. But with her broad Cockney intonation she seems like she has escaped from another play or an episode of EastEnders. Still, she's certainly better than anyone around her.

There are rumours emanating from the National that all is not well under the current regime. If this bedraggled production is anything to go by, we are not going to be well served by what should be our premier theatre company.

Maxwell Cooter