Lament of young love

THEATRE Romeo and Juliet RSC, Stratford
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The Independent Culture
The RSC's most recent run-ins with Romeo and Juliet have not been especially happy. In David Leveaux's 1991 Stratford production, the youthful lovers were played by a distinctly mature pair who seemed to have trouble working up a mild interest in each other, let alone a once- in-a-lifetime passion. Dominated by a huge, churchy quattrocento screen of sliding panels, this Verona boasted all the holiday attractions of a sepulchre, well before the tomb scene.

Then, last autumn at the Barbican in London, the company played host to a version from the Dusseldorfer Schauspielhaus which set the play in a brutalised Clockwork Orange future-scape. But instead of contrasting the love of the title characters with the heartless cynicism of the surrounding world, the production opted for easy iconoclasm.

After their single night of love, Romeo and Juliet bickered like people woken up to the hangover of a cheap, mistaken one-night stand. Romeo even thought better of taking the poison and was seen, fingers down throat, desperately trying to sick it back up.

Adrian Noble's new production at Stratford, though not exactly pulse- quickening, offers a sane, well-pondered alternative to such excesses in a swift, considerably cut account of the play on the main stage. The richly realised setting is 19th-century Italy and the guests at the Capulet ball (where, in a nice Italianate touch, there's a table of unexcluded children playing cards) dance to the strains of Verdi. Surmounted by rows of washing hanging out from the balconies, life here is lived in al fresco cafs, and ended there, too: Tybalt winds up with a knife through his neck humped over one of the tables. The Capulet-Montague feud is given a plausible social context in a world that has certain cultural links with that of The Godfather.

Zubin Varla's Romeo cuts the right figure here. There's the sleek pampered quality to his handsomeness of a young heir who has never been deprived of family adoration. The problem, though, is that Varla does not convincingly mature (either in voice or in manner) from a youth who is in love with Love to a young man capable of putting another human being first. When Mercutio is killed, this Romeo sounds predominantly self- aggrieved and, even in the tomb, you feel that his performance is too busy watching itself in some mental mirror. Unlike many recent Romeos, Varla is infatuated; with whom he is infatuated is sometimes a little unclear.

A vision of loveliness at the ball, in her white crinoline and with her blonde hair festooned with roses and lace, Lucy Whybrow brings great assets to the part: the bone china delicacy of demeanour offset by the mettlesome wit and the little knowing smile as though she is amused by some private joke. Vocally, however, in a house of this size, she seemed to be under some strain, a petulance of tone not always confined to the tantrums into which the heroine here spectacularly spirals. Juliet's potential and its tragic waste come through keenly from the performance, though, as is also true of Mark Lockyer's excellent, nervously fantastical Mercutio, who resembles what you would get if you married Joan Rivers' face to the louche toff manner of Jeremy Lloyd. No wonder that there is a desperate underlying melancholy.

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