of the 1935 production,
Starring John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier

Production Info, and Cast

Reviews and Notices of the production

Sir John Gilegud's account, and thoughts on the production

Lord Laurence Olivier's account, and thoughts on the production


Production Info, and Cast:

Romeo and Juliet
(New Theatre, London, 1935)
Director: John Gielgud
Designer: Motley

Romeo; Mercutio............Laurence Olivier
Romeo; Mercutio.................John Gielgud
Juliet................................Peggy Ashcroft
Nurse....................................Edith Evans
Benvolio........................Glen Byam Shaw
Tybalt..............................Harry Andrews
Peter................................George Devine
Friar Laurence...................George Howe
Apothecary........................Alec Guinness

Reviews and Notices of the production:

Mr Olivier and Mr Gielgud

 Romeo and Juliet
Revival of Shakespeare's Tragedy

Thursday evening was all that an evening in the theatre should be - exciting, moving, provocative. Here in conjunction were the flower of Shakespeare's young genius and the best of young English acting talent. The producer was our leading Shakespearean actor, and the scenery and costumes were by the artists who had attained fame through the productions of Richard of Bordeaux and Hamlet. In other words Mr Gielgud had once more invested him in his Motley and given these young ladies leave to speak his mind.
    Let me begin with a word or two about the production, normally tucked away at the end. The difficulty of producing plays written for the Elizabethan and transferred to the picture stage must always be resolved by compromise, which means that good and bad must go hand in hand. The good point about this production is that it enabled that fiery-footed steed which is this tragedy to gallop sufficiently apace.
    Now, though the acquisition of speed has been a triumph, it has entailed certain sacrifices. For Mr Gielgud's, and consequently Motley's, method is a combination of the Elizabethan and modern stages, with Juliet's bedroom and balcony a permanent part of the setting. That people might walk beneath it, the thing was supported on posts, so that it looked rather like a hotel lift which has got stuck halfway up to the mezzanine floor. The device also precluded the full use of the stage, so that the action seemed to take place not so much in Verona as in a corner of it. I fault the lighting, too, in that gone were the sun and warmth of Italy and the whole thing appeared to happen at night, the tomb scene being the cheerfullest of all! The costumes were charming, even if the football jerseys of the rival factions reminded us less of Montague and Capulet than of Wanderers and Wolves. Elsewhere Motley have rightly differed from Dickens's Flora, who could not conceive any connection between Mantua and mantua-making. In the theatre there is every connection, and Motley have caught the spirit of the place and time, brilliantly for example in Romeo's case, though in Juliet's oddly reminiscent of the pre-Raphaelite way of looking at Ellen Terry.

Mr Olivier's Romeo

The ball, whose masks were those of hoopoes, puffins, and other outrageously-billed birds, brought up a very nice point. It had been more than whispered that presently Mr Gielgud, who plays Mercutio, and Mr Olivier, who plays Romeo, are to change roles. At first sight this suggested a line much in vogue: 'Just think what Toucan do!' But Thursday night's experience persuaded one to the contrary. Am I in the foyer going to chip bits off my invention for the benefit of other critics? Why should Mr Gielgud pilfer his bright heaven for the benefit of another's Romeo? This means that Mr Gielgud had produced all of Romeo and Juliet except half the title part! If not he was more than human, though in any case it was probably not humanly possible at one fell swoop to denude Mr Olivier of his modernity and turn today's clipped speech into a passionate feeling for verse. Mr Olivier's Romeo suffered enormously from the fact that the spoken poetry of the part eluded him. In his delivery he brought off a twofold inexpertness which approached virtuosity - that of gabbling all the words in a line and uttering each line as a staccato whole cut off from its fellows.
    In his early scenes Romeo appeared to have no apprehension of, let alone joy in, the words he was speaking, though this may have been due to first-night nervousness, since he improved greatly later on. But throughout one wanted over and over again to stop the performance and tell the actor that he couldn't, just couldn't, rush this or that passage. If ecstasy is present in this play it must be at the meeting in the Friar's cell, where Romeo's words hang on the air like grace-notes:

Ah, Juliet, if the measure of thy joy
Be heap'd like mine, and that thy skill be more
To blazon it, then sweeten with thy breath
This neighbour air, and let rich music's tongue
Unfold the imagined happiness that both
Receive in either by this dear encounter.

This is music and must be spoken as music. Again, what is the use of Shakespeare writing such an image as: 'The white wonder of dear Juliet's hand' if Romeo is not himself blasted with the beauty of it? Never mind Shakespeare's precepts; his verse must be recited line upon line, here a little hurry and there a little dwell.
    Apart from the speaking there was poetry and to spare: This Romeo looked every inch a lover, and a lover fey and foredoomed. The actor's facial expression was varied and mobile, his bearing noble, his play of arm imaginative, and his smaller gestures were infinitely touching. Note, for example, how lovingly he fingered first the props of Juliet's balcony and at the last her bier. For once in a way the tide of this young man's passion was presented at the flood, and his grief was agonisingly done. 'Is it e'en so? Then I defy you, stars!' is a line which has defied many actors. Mr Olivier's way with this was to say it tonelessly, and it  is a very moving way. Taking the performance by and large, I have no hesitation in saying that this is the most moving Romeo I have seen. It also explains that something displeasing which I have hitherto found in Mr Olivier's acting - the discrepancy between the romantic manner and such ridiculous things as cuff-links and moustaches. Now that these trivia have been shorn away and the natural player stands forth, lo and behold he is very good!

Mr Gielgud's Mercutio

    Mercutio is always a problem, for the reason that the Queen Mab speech, obviously inserted to satisfy an actor's demand, is not in keeping with that arch-materialist. In my opinion the way to play the part is to go all out for the sensualist, treat the speech as cadenza and in the way a fiddler will plonk one of his own into the middle of somebody else's concerto, bow, decline an encore, and then get back into the character! Mr Gielgud reverses the process and builds his Mercutio out of the Queen Mab speech which, of course, he delivers exquisitely. This means a new death scene and saying 'A plague o' both your houses!' with a smile which is all a benison. Not good Shakespeare, perhaps, but very beautiful Gielgud. In these circumstances Mercutio is not our old friend but a Frenchified version, say Theodore de Banville's:

    Jeune homme sans melancolie,
    Blond comme un soleil d'Italie,
    Garde bien to belle folie!

I agree that the last line chimes with Shakespeare since both Mercutio and Adolphe Gaiffe keep their lovely riot in the sense that in the drama and the poem neither lives long enough to lose it.
    Miss Peggy Ashcroft's Juliet has been greatly praised. Certainly the eager and touching childishness of the early part could not be bettered, so that we prepared to be greatly moved. Personally, I found the performance heartrending until it came to the part where the heart should be rent. And then nothing happened, though all the appurtenances of grief, the burying of the head in the Nurse's bosom and so forth were present. When Juliet lifted her head, her face was seen to be duly ravaged, but she continued to the end with the same quality of ravagement, which as a piece of acting spells monotony. In my view Miss Ashcroft implied Juliet without playing her. That is to say she did not move me nearly so much as any of the children who have played in 'Madchen in Uniform.' But then it is very difficult indeed, perhaps impossible, for any Madchen to put on Shakespeare's uniform. Mr Granville-Barker dismisses as 'parroted nonsense' the saying that no actress can play Juliet till she is too old to look her. Let this acute observer produce an actress past or present to support him! According to a great critic of the eighties, Ellen Terry herself failed not only to conjure up the horrors of the charnel house but to make the scene impressive. In my judgment Miss Ashcroft succeeded in the first half, only to fade away later. On the other hand the success so far as it went was complete.

Miss Evans's Nurse
I have not space to enumerate the admirable supporting cast, and can only congratulate Mr Gielgud upon a production triumphant everywhere despite the fact that Romeo cannot speak his part, Juliet cannot act more than half of hers, and Mercutio is topsy?turvy. To crown all, remains the Nurse, knocking the balance of the play into a cocked hat, just as would happen if the Porter were the centre of Macbeth. Miss Evans rules the entire roost. Obviously of the German-Flemish school, this is Agatha Payne metamorphosed into good instead of bad angel. It is a grand performance, and her pathos should teach young playgoers what pathos was in my young days. One felt that whenever such grief is heard in the theatre, Mrs Stirling's heart will hear it and beat, though it has lain for a century dead.
Sunday Times,
20 October 1935


Romeo and Juliet, at the New Theatre, is one of those productions whose memory the true theatre-lover will carry with him to the grave. Visiting it again last night, I was swept once more by the same almost intolerable sense of enchantment which I had experienced when the run of the play began.
    Now that John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier have changed parts, the production, which could hardly gain much in emotional effect, gains greatly in artistic balance. Mr Gielgud's Romeo is more romantic than was Mr Olivier's, has a much greater sense of the beauty of language, and substitutes a thoughtfulness that suits the part for an impetuosity that did not.
    And if there were doubts whether Mr Olivier was well cast as Romeo, there can be none about his Mercutio. This is a brilliant piece of work - full of zest, humour and virility. The 'Queen Mab' speech - that most famous of purple patches - went for rather less than usual; but it could be counted well lost, seeing that it gave us a perfect interpretation of one of the most effective small parts in all drama.
    Peggy Ashcroft's enchanting Juliet and Edith Evans's magnificent playing as the Nurse have already been praised so highly by me that I can now find nothing more to say about either. George Howe, Frederick Lloyd, George Devine, and half-a-dozen others in the long cast do work of distinction.

Daily Telegraph,
29 November 1935


In many details of this rendering Mr Gielgud has bettered his own instruction; and in speed, decision, and radiance it has gained considerably since the first night. The altering of the chief roles is also an advantage, for Mr Olivier brings to Mercutio a touch of the saturnine soldier as well as of the brilliant dealer in railery; he is termagant; but affectionately so, and the picture fascinates in a manner quite different from Mr Gielgud's smoother lineation of the raffish, sparkling chatterbox. That the Queen Mab speech may have been better spoken by Mr Gielgud is no criticism of Mr Olivier's performance, for that speech is only tied to the character by the flimsiest of connections. It may be heresy to suggest that Romeo is a great name, but not a great part. Yet I do suggest it. After Mr Gielgud's Hamlet it seems almost small. I have often wondered whether some mighty passage of grief has not tumbled out of the text; is it credible that such a gorgeous and confirmed spouter can have taken the news of Juliet's death so calmly and so silently? Again, the presence of the boy-actor always made Shakespeare go gingerly on the action side of love scenes, and this great tragedy of love is therefore not so much the show of love as the spouting of it. A glorious verbal fountain it is indeed, and Mr Gielgud tosses the words with a lucidity which does not break fluency, and with a loveliness of intonation which Mr Olivier lacked. It is a beautiful performance, less forceful in some ways, better formed .in others, than Mr Olivier's. Miss Ashcroft has improved her Juliet in strength and clarity for the most part, but there is still need for putting check and pattern upon her grief in 'O serpent heart.' In the lighter aspects of the role she is consistently admirable. If it be argued that Miss Edith Evans's Nurse is too good by a quarter, so distracting one's attention from whole to part, there is no answer save that we don't mind. Romeo and Juliet is not supreme as an organic whole (the plot is too silly), but as an assemblage of incomparable noises, persons, lyrics, and metaphors. And what a personage Miss Evans makes!

1 December 1935
Sir John Gilegud's account, and thoughts on the production:

    In 1934 I had to abandon staging a new version of A Tale of Two Cities, which I had concocted in collaboration with Terence Rattigan. The Motleys had designed an excellent permanent set, and the cast had been chosen and approached, when I suddenly received a very forceful letter from the veteran actor-manager Sir John Martin Harvey, who had announced a farewell tour of his long acclaimed adaptation of the Dickens novel, called The Only Way. 'For you to usurp the part of Sidney Carton,' he wrote, 'would be like proposing to stage The Bells while Irving was still alive'. I sought the advice of my managers as well as that of several important dramatic critics, but they all seemed to think it would be 'taking the bread out of the old man's mouth', and I had no alternative but to abandon my project. Anxious to show in London the success I had achieved in Oxford, I suggested staging Romeo and Juliet again, encouraged by the fact that Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans were both likely to be available again to appear in it with me.
    Much as I loved the part of Romeo, I knew by this time how difficult it was, and that a good Mercutio might easily eclipse me. I had once seen that happen in 1919, in a disastrous production of the play, in which the Juliet of the American actress Doris Keane and the Romeo of Basil Sydney were overshadowed by the successes of Ellen Terry as the Nurse (her last professional engagement) and Leon Quartermaine, who played Mercutio so finely. The audience had shouted for him at the end of the first night performance, but he was modest enough to slip away directly after his death scene.
    I suddenly had the idea of playing Mercutio in my new production (as well as speaking the Chorus in a mask) and asking another leading man to play Romeo, with both of us changing parts after six weeks of the run.
    When Robert Donat, whom I first approached with the idea, refused, I turned to Laurence Olivier, whom I had directed some months earlier when he played Bothwell in Queen of Scots, which Gordon Daviot (authoress of Richard of Bordeaux) had written for Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, but which had run only for a few months.
    Olivier accepted my proposal enthusiastically, and we set to work. At this time his career had not fully taken off. He had made a sensational success as Stanhope in the first Sunday night performance of Journey's End but, as he was under contract to Basil Dean, he was not available to play the role again when the play was put on in the West End. That production was to prove an enormous success (with Stanhope played by Cohn Clive) running in both London and America for several years.
    Meanwhile, Olivier had been seen in two failures for Basil Dean, Beau Geste and The Circle of Chalk, and in two other plays, Ringmaster and The Rats of Norway. In all these productions he achieved splendid personal and critical success, though he was not the top star in any of them. He was then married to Jill Esmond and had been planning a Romeo and Juliet in which they would both appear. But he generously agreed to abandon his project and work with me instead. We had only a short period for rehearsal as the New Theatre would be empty and needing an attraction in a few weeks' time. The Motleys speedily and cleverly adapted the set they had already designed for the Dickens play.
    To the end of his life Olivier was unable to forget the bad notices he received for his verse-speaking as Romeo, though he was too proud to mention them at the time. I knew I was more lyrically successful as Mercutio in the Queen Mab scene, but his virility and panache in the other scenes, his furious and skilful fencing and final exit to his death, were certainly more striking in the part than anything I was able to achieve, while his performance as Romeo was infinitely romantic. His beautiful pose as he stood beneath the balcony expressed the essence of the character to perfection. I was tempted to remonstrate at his insistence on wearing a false nose (he always used one whenever possible - as Puff, Shallow, and Oedipus, as well as for Richard III and Lear). I felt also that he was inclined to be too athletic in the bedroom scene with Juliet. I have always believed that too much 'physical' acting here goes against Shakespeare's intention: he so carefully devised the balcony scene as prelude, and the farewell scene as post-consummation, in order to avoid embarrassing both the boy actor who created his Juliet and the audience.
    Olivier and I got on splendidly all the same, though I think he rightly felt I was inclined to show off in my verse-speaking, which was becoming too much like singing. I daresay I was somewhat smug after a few recent successes, and perhaps was inclined to patronise him from my position of authority. Only the other day I was much amused, when reading the memoirs of Lydia Lopokova (the Diaghilev ballerina who later married the economist Maynard Keynes), by a passage from a letter written to her by Frederick Ashton, famous for his sharp tongue: 'Went to the second performance of Romeo, Gielgud very Sarah Bernhardt [voix d'or I imagine he meant], Edith Evans as the Nurse quite overbalanced the production.' He did not even mention either Olivier or Peggy Ashcroft, and I hope there was not too much truth in his remarks.

Lord Laurence Olivier's account, and thoughts on the production:

    It has always been my intention to make Shakespeare as modern as possible. I don't mean in production: I mean to the ear. In my early days I was attacked for this-"Can't speak the verse"-but I was arrogant and confident enough to ride out this criticism, and I think I have been proved right. When Henry V happened, the audience knew what I was talking about. They weren't listening to someone singing an aria; they were hearing me set a man's thoughts before them as clearly as I could. On the first night of Hamlet at the Old Vic, Tyrone Guthrie, my director, came to the dressing room and said about my makeup, "Every inch a Hamlet. Think they'll probably fault you for the verse speaking, and to a certain extent they may be right, but I expect you will come to your own decisions about that in your own good time." I had to decide whether to rethink and obey the critics, or battle on and hope the critics might come to me.
    An example is a production John Gielgud and I did of Romeo and Juliet. It's very easy, looking back, to criticize, but in those days there was a way of doing things. That was how they were done, and that was what the public came to see. They wanted their verse spoken beautifully, and if that was not how you delivered it, you were considered an upstart, an outsider. So I was the outsider and John was the jewel, and a shining one, too-deservedly so. John still has the most beautiful voice, but I felt in those days he allowed it to dominate his performances, and if he was lost for but a moment, he would dive straight back into its honey.
    I thought his first Hamlet was wonderful, because he didn't allow himself to do that - he didn't sing. But as time went by I believe he sang it more and more. His fifth or sixth performance of Hamlet, as far as I was concerned; was a complete aria. For me this was a great disappointment. I said to myself, "That's wonderful in its way, but has he not gone backwards?"
    His voice, of course, was musical enough to sell his performance to the people on the old grounds. He was giving the familiar tradition fresh life, whereas I was completely disregarding the old in favor of something new. Somehow I feel that he was a little led by the nose by his audience and by his acolytes. He was greatly admired, in fact adored, and like all of us at some time in our careers he believed his publicity. So by the time we did Romeo, I was considered by the Establishment to be his opponent. Everybody was in his favor, while I might have been from another planet. I can still remember some of the awful headlines. You always do, don't you? The good ones dance through your head and are forgotten in a day; the bad ones become indelibly stamped forever. Here's one from the Evening News: "A beautiful Juliet but . . ." Another said, "Mr. Olivier can play many parts; Romeo is not one of them. His blank verse is the blankest I've ever heard."
    I made a terrible flop as Romeo because they said I couldn't speak verse. It was laughable from my point of view. I couldn't speak? I was brought up speaking; I'd been speaking verse since I was eight years old. But I didn't sing it, you see, and the fashion was perhaps to sing it.
    What the hell! I think I was right, and I know that John will go on thinking that he was. Whatever the results, whichever side people come down on, we must have been fascinating to watch.

* For more information on this production, please see the Production Notes for Romeo and Juliet, at the Motley site. *


1.  Gielgud, Sir John, and Miller, John.  Acting Shakespeare.  New York: Scribner's, 1992.

2.  Olivier, Laurence.  Laurence Olivier On Acting.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

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