John Stride and Judi Dench as Romeo and Juliet

John Stride and Judi Dench as Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic in 1960 starred John Stride as Romeo and 25 year old Judi Dench as Juliet. It was a popular but controversial production by the Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who was to become famous for his non-traditional film versions of Shakespeare. It was his first professional Shakespeare production, as until then he had been directing operas at Covent Garden.

In Romeo and Juliet he made massive cuts to the text, and warned his cast that 'verse speakers would be prosecuted'. The actors were instructed to deliver their lines in the rhythms of modern speech with all its irregularities. The fights were long and audiences were surprised by their realism.

Critics and audiences were divided. Many spectators felt they had been cheated of the lyrical romanticism of the play. They wanted all the verse and they wanted it spoken in the traditional manner. Others loved the realism and rawness of the performance. The critic Kenneth Tynan said that Zeffirelli had 'worked a miracle' by making the characters into real people.