THEATRE / Love hurts: Rhoda Koenig on Romeo and Juliet in Oxford

The kids are not only all right in the Oxford Stage Company's production of Romeo and Juliet, they're up against an older generation whose emotional brutality is a match for any of their children's blood-spilling. John Retallack, who has pared down the text and speeded up the action, emphasises the youthfulness of all the sympathetic characters - the two lovers are surprised and overwhelmed by their feelings, Friar Lawrence is unusually young and virile. Tybalt is, of course, an irredeemably bad egg, but one might argue that he is the creature of some unholy couple like Walter Hall's frighteningly sadistic Lord Capulet and Carol Redford as his leathery wife. Playing two parts, one actor strikingly illustrates how inhumanity goes along with maturity: a rumpled, gentle Benvolio, the excellent Sam Bond, is also, as a Paris acting older than his years, prissy and cold rather than just dim.

Unaccustomed to proving his manhood by his ability to please a woman rather than by tussling with other boys, Stephen Moyer's Romeo is quick to disdain the weakness of love. Enraged at his own folly in trying to make Tybalt and Mercutio see sweet reason, he tears out the most heartfelt line of the evening: 'O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate, / And in my temper softened valour's steel]' That type of manhood, however, is not one this tremulous Romeo can long sustain. After the murder of Tybalt, he blubbers desperately at the Friar, clutching his sleeve and hiding his face in it. As Juliet, Tara Woodward is a bit self- regarding in the love scenes, but gains power as doom closes in.

Not all of Retallack's innovations are a good idea. I missed the point of having some of the actors not involved in a scene sit patiently on the sidelines, as if waiting for a job interview; and, with the premium put on restless energy, the sweetness and lyricism of the verse are given short shrift. But there are many fresh and powerful effects: the solemnity is taken out of the balcony scene by having the lovers frantically climbing up and down to get to each other, and missing every time; the musicians for the wedding feast play louder and louder as the nurse's screams rise too, when she discovers the dead bride. This Romeo and Juliet may be weak on the mysterious aspects of the play (in the sense that love is a mystery), but its vehemence serves its theme well: it knows who the villains are.

The Playhouse, Oxford. Booking: 0865 798600

(Photograph omitted)