Romeo and Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

It's an extraordinary achievement by any stretch of the imagination, but for Peter Gill, a man in his sixties, not just to reinvigorate, but to re-inaugurate Shakespeare's most youthful and hormonally perturbed tragedy is the kind of experience that in England does not lead to awards, but should.

The set is a little bit unfortunate: Italianate and stencilled, it has the effect of old, faded blue tattoos - and tattoos, moreover, from a period where the forearm was a dumping ground, rather than a site for creative artwork. It says a lot for the production that it survives this decor, for the decor undoubtedly leads one to fear the worst.

There are those of us who do not like Romeo and Juliet, the level of dislike ranging from professional tiredness to private, heretical thoughts that chunks of it are not terribly well written. This production is in period, the actors' thighs bulging in tights. But its greatness stems from the fact that, throughout, you feel that it was written last week, possibly by Gill himself, who is in the enviable position of being one of our greatest playwrights as well as one of our greatest directors.

Of course, the deep compliment should go to Michael Boyd for, only three or four months into the job, having the vision to hire Gill, who is not an obvious choice to be helming this of all tragedies in this of all seasons. It's the beat of the thing that is so brilliant; the pulse. At its best - and it does not sustain the same level of achievement unbrokenly - it is like lying next to someone post-coitally, naked of course, but surprised by the rhythm of the heartbeat that syncopates rather than chimes with one's own. This familiar - over-familiar, even - text, come across in every line in this way - ever-surprising, as intimate as your own face in a mirror, and yet profoundly new.

The casting in itself is a wonder - and the clothes. Juliet emerges in a frock that is a blush of tequila sunrise, set off by an ivory bolero jacket. The performance by Sian Brooke lives up to that outfit - ardent, astringently intelligent, speaking the verse with the kind of urgency and naturalism that you would apply to an EastEnders script, were you so situated. Matthew Rhys as Romeo tears up the rule book, but not with any attention-seeking bravura. He simply is Romeo, Gill's Romeo - Welsh, and with the kind of springy black hair that you can hear growing out of his body. One of the essential things about producing this play is that you should have a leading actor who is equal to Juliet's desire. And in this production, both the desire and its object are more than equal to each other, thank you.

It's a production that is going to divide audiences. In the interval, I spoke to a great Shakespeare scholar whose response was that it had been a pity they couldn't afford a director. The arguments that may well rage about this show are a tribute to its power to provoke. For myself, for what it's worth, it made me understand what it must have been like to attend the first night of The Rite of Spring.

In rep to 1 October (0870 609 1110)

Comments