This production transcends the usual run of Shakespearean presentations in taste, beauty and imagination. Many of the misgivings one is likely to have in advance about a production like this--misgivings based on the star system and certain excesses or limitations of style in contemporary productions of Shakespeare--are unconfirmed.
Most important of all, one does not have to close his eyes to the frequent miscasting of stars, whereby actresses twice to three times the age of Juliet are expected to play her convincingly.
Both vocally and visually, Miss de Haviland suggests the youth and freshness that the teen-aged Juliet should have. Her acting performance, however, is not an even one. In many scenes, she gets bogged down with ineffective pauses. Such a thing happens in the scene held most sacred by actresses, the balcony scene. But in other places, Miss de Haviland shows herself quite capable of natural, moving, and winning speech.
The semaphore school of Shakespearean gestures is represented by Jack Hawkins who plays Mercutio. Mr. Hawkins also subscribes to the school which supplements Shakespeare's images with diagrams swiftly drawn on an imaginary blackboard. This is especially disconcerting when he illustrates the abundant sexual images in a way which leads one to believe that he does not know their meaning. He redeems himself, however, by playing the death scene quite nicely; much of his success here and in other spots is due to the necessary relaxation of his grating voice and moving hands.
In contrast to the star, Douglas Watson as Romeo gives an extraordinary performance. His speech is fluid, rhythmical and natural, his movement exceptionally graceful; and he is cast perfectly. His only fault is a lack of depth, evident in the scene where he hears of Juliet's death.
Much of the superiority of this production is due to the direction of Peter Glenville. He has worked out beautiful and effective movement for his actors, and he has shown a high level of imagination in planning scenes and creating atmosphere. The costumes are the most beautiful and tasteful Shakespearean costumes that I have yet seen. They have, in addition to excellent design, the virtues of simplicity and harmony, with each other, the set, and the moods. This may be because the settings (which are excellent), and the costumes, are done by one person, Oliver Messel.
The final contribution to the success of this production is the general excellence of the supporting cast. Malcolm Keen as Capulet is as ingratiating a character actor as I have seen, and Evelyn Carden as the nurse is quite funny, except in the early parts of the play when she is not distinct.