Whose production is it anyway?

Romeo And Juliet | Olivier RNT, London
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The Independent Culture

A lot depends on the name before the title. You've heard of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet. You've heard of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. The question, though, is whose Romeo and Juliet are we now witnessing at the National Theatre? On one level, the answer is simple. The lines are definitely Shakespeare's. But who is responsible for the direction?

A lot depends on the name before the title. You've heard of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet. You've heard of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. The question, though, is whose Romeo and Juliet are we now witnessing at the National Theatre? On one level, the answer is simple. The lines are definitely Shakespeare's. But who is responsible for the direction?

The programme says it's the work of the talented Tim Supple. Rumour suggests, however, that Trevor Nunn, the National's honcho, has had to take the show over. Supple may have been able to hack it, the story goes, at the Young Vic, where he was until recently artistic director, and where his talent blossomed in the kind of physical theatre where actors create everything, scenery included, with their bodies. But, as was shown by his production of The Villain's Opera, a costly flop earlier this year, you need very different skills to fill a vast epic theatre such as the Olivier.

So, two questions arise. How would this production strike a normal, intelligent play-goer whose ears were not already buzzing with the latest gossip from the theatrical scandal-mill? And second, if the reports are accurate, what does it say about the current state of health of the nation's flagship theatre?

On the first issue, it is fair to say that this modern-dress production is no abject disgrace. It suffers more from a lack of positive identity than from an identity crisis. For example, it's surely a little early to be reusing the trick from Nunn's Olivier staging of Troilus and Cressida - that's to say, differentiating the feuding families by the colour of the actors, with only Patrick O'Kane's playfully barbed Belfast Mercutio an eloquent oddball anomaly to this coding.

And the dancing and the sluggish cleaver-clashing fights feel pretty dutiful and rote-learnt instead of conveying the heat, hormonal storms and impulsive haste endemic to Verona and its adolescent population. Likewise, many of the actors seem under-directed and thus forced to fall back on their worst mannerisms. Beverley Klein's lor'love-you-sir nurse, for instance, seems to have strayed from some ghastly staging of Oliver!

On the other hand, the production is simply and effectively designed, with two curving mobile lattice walls carving the space and joining to form the Capulet tomb, which Chiwetel Ejiofor's witty and sexy, though not well-spoken Romeo eventually invades. And Charlotte Randle's slip of a Juliet is touching in the way she shows you a young girl tentatively trying out her womanly effects, to the point at times of seeming a calculating madam.

As for the second question, the problems of this staging seem to be a further illustration of Nunn's failure to bring in strong enough talent from outside. He has, of course, denied taking over the production; maybe it is only my journalistic cynicism that makes me disbelieve that he has merely "fine-tuned" the show. The best solution might be to clone Nunn, so he could operate in all three of the National's auditoria simultaneously. That fantasy scenario may be a tribute to his individual genius: it is not, however, a tribute to his stewardship of this great and vital institution.

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