Michael Rosen remembers Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet


My parents took me to The Old Vic from the time I was about nine or ten. I remember thinking how grand it was – all that soft red furnishing! And the acting seemed to match the furnishing. The first production that was a real thrill was Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. I was 14. The production began with what felt like a whole city bursting on to the stage, and I can remember that one man was on a trolley just as you see people who’ve lost the power of their limbs used to use in the historical time of the play. In fact, I remembered seeing someone like that in a painting by Bruegel and it instantly chimed with me. I think Zeffirelli wanted that production to be very much of its time. When people disparage this way of doing theatre as ‘museum’ theatre, I remember how so very much not like a museum this production was. In its own way, Zeffirelli made history live.

I was utterly moved by Juliet, and I can remember very clearly getting a sense at the time of how the situation she was in made her frantic. Great acting makes you want to reach out to the person being portrayed, to ‘save’ them from their situation and this Juliet did just that to the teenage boy I was. I have the image of her in the balcony scene stuck in my mind. Years later I ‘discovered’ that this was Judi Dench. How great that a live performance has survived in my head for nearly 60 years. I can well imagine that actors sometimes feel that their past live performances have in some way gone, disappeared. I hope Judi Dench knows that this one hasn’t. She and the production as a whole made that play live. And in some way or another it’s still alive in me.

Michael Rosen

Image: Romeo and Juliet October 1960, Judi Dench as Juliet and John Stride as Romeo at The Old Vic

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