<preform>Romeo and Juliet, RST, Stratford-Upon-Avon <br>Beasts and Beauties, Old Vic, Bristol <br>Majnoun, Riverside, London</preform>

<preform>A run of the mill R & J </preform>
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The Independent Culture

How is the Royal Shakespeare Company doing? The National Theatre, since Nick Hytner took over, has been on a remarkable high while the RSC, under its new AD Michael Boyd, has emerged from the doldrums with some fine recent productions directed by Greg Doran. However, Stratford's current Tragedy Season (which started with Macbeth) is showing few signs of fresh inspiration, in spite of a specially gathered ensemble and longer rehearsal periods.

How is the Royal Shakespeare Company doing? The National Theatre, since Nick Hytner took over, has been on a remarkable high while the RSC, under its new AD Michael Boyd, has emerged from the doldrums with some fine recent productions directed by Greg Doran. However, Stratford's current Tragedy Season (which started with Macbeth) is showing few signs of fresh inspiration, in spite of a specially gathered ensemble and longer rehearsal periods.

The season looks worrying like an ideas-free zone so far, with some vague notion of staging "straight" productions in period costume. Is this now officially the Received Shakespeare Company, like some bland equivalent of an RP accent? Alas, it is also hard to believe Romeo and Juliet has been directed by the normally excellent Peter Gill.

This production is done in medieval gear, meaning a bunch of nice-looking actors hang around in tights. Matthew Rhys's Romeo and his pals also acquire ye olde accessories - flambeaux and commedia-style masks - when they gatecrash the Capulets' party where, by the by, everyone is puzzlingly colour-blind to the glaring fact that all the impostors are wearing blue, while the Capulets' kit is red. Hey ho.

This wouldn't matter if the acting was excellent. June Watson is droll and loveable as Juliet's nurse but Emily Raymond's wooden Lady Capulet moves as if her arms are on strings and, crucially, no one really conveys the intense ardour, impatience and whizzy intelligence of the adolescent characters. Rhys's ambling Romeo seems too smug in the balcony scene, turning to the stalls rather than swiftly back to Juliet as he says, "It is my soul that calls upon my name". Sian Brooke, in turn, strikes some rather saccharine poses without fully understanding Juliet's zigzagging thoughts.

That said, both lovers grow more driven once fate starts tearing them apart and they have one very poignant moment of tenderness: Rhys resting his forehead against hers before he has to go. Shakespeare's portrait of teenage suicidal desperation always pierces the heart, and the grief of David Hargreaves' elderly Capulet - stepping back from his daughter's deathbed in silent shock - cuts deep.

In Beauty and the Beast, enchanting roses bloom in the palace garden of a far from savoury suitor. This is one of eight stories retold by Carol Ann Duffy in Beasts and Beauties, the writer's second collection of folk tales for physical theatre performers, following on from Grimm Tales. In designer-director Melly Still's premiere, the Beast (Jack Tarlton) is a transfixing wild man with sweat running down his torso, saliva spraying between his fangs, and appalling table manners. No wonder it takes a while for Beauty to appreciate his inner tenderness.

Once or twice, I wondered if this show was too scary for children. The violent struggle between Bill Nash's Bluebeard and his fleeing wife looks hair-raisingly realistic as he drags her by the ankle and yanks out his knife. However, the little girl next to me didn't flinch and Still's ferocious scenes are courageously uncondescending. These are not sugary fairy tales but lessons in life. In the end, I think there are also as many positive role models (and warnings) for boys as for girls. The gruesome is often intertwined with the comical too; Bluebeard raises a titter from infants and adults, chanting: "Sharper, sharper shiny knife,/ Cut the throat of whiny wife." Still's staging is occasionally rushed and messy. The original Grimm Tales - designed by Still but directed by Tim Supple - had more exquisite visual simplicity and physical inventiveness. But this is delightfully hotchpotch, including lesser-known tales from around the world and live music by Terje Isungset who twangs an electronic Jew's harp and drums on an old pram. Still's cast are exuberant, too, and transform into particularly hilarious farm animals: a sheep staggering around in Y-fronts; a scruffy dog in cardie and slippers; and a heffer petulantly waving a ballooning Marigold glove. Well worth a gander.

With only room for a footnote on Majnoun - an Anglo-Iranian piece by 30 Bird Productions - it must be said it's hard to follow Mehrdad Seyf's rewrite of Leili O Majnoun, the Middle Eastern tragic saga of the love-maddened poet called Gheiss. Seyf's cast offer interesting glimpses of Iran's 20th-century phases of modernisation (Western clothes, women's emancipation). However, these are scrambled so that Gheiss's identity is, well, anybody's guess. The narrative confusions don't stop the evening being studded with talented team-players including the mesmerising, mellifluous actress Roxana Pope - a star in the making.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Romeo and Juliet': RST, Stratford (0870 609 1110), to 1 Oct; 'Beasts and Beauties': Old Vic, Bristol (0117 987 7877), to 1 May; 'Majnoun': Riverside, London W6 (020 8237 1111), to 18 April

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