Of course, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet could have been averted if only the telephone had come to Verona. That would be a few centuries later, however.
"Romeo and Juliet" comes to television tonight as the third of "The Shakespeare Plays" from the BBC and Time-Life Television, but the production, at 8 on Channel 26, does not live up to the standards of the first two in the series. It is satisfactory at best, and the casting of the two leads is a disappointment, particularly with the memory of Franco Zeffirelli's 1961 movie version, still surprisingly fresh.
As can happen in productions of this play, this one makes the pair seem not so much star-crossed lovers as friar-crossed lovers. When one's mind is allowed to wander during "Romeo and Juliet," it may come to rest on such creaks in the plot as Friar Lawrence's addled meddling, a feeble fulcrum on which to turn a tragedy -- especially since the young lovers from feuding families already have everything going against them anyway.
And under the direction of Alvin Rakoff, the language and speeches in which we expect to take a sensual delight often become sing-songy and cantish. It also was awfully unwise of him to cut away from Romeo right in the middle of "But soft, what light..." This is the sign of a director who can't think of anything new to do with dialogue that has become familiar to the whole world, so he tries to make it the Shakespearean equivalent of a throwaway gag.
Patrick Ryecart's Romeo comes across as a not-in-the-least-Italian playboy with a Hollywood hair-blow. Rebecca Saire's Juliet, far more persuasively youthful and eager, nevertheless lacks passion. As the Nurse, an irritating character to begin with, Celia Johnson flutters around like a shocked moth.
Occasionally there are lovely touches in this videotaped production; the sets and color scheme are handsome, and the fight scenes more authentically rowdy than usual. But what it lacks is an attitude."Julius Caesar," the first play in the series, became a ballet for bureaucrats under the direction of Herbert Wise. Rakoff has a properly respectable fix on the play, but he doesn't really have a distinctive grip on it.
Oddly enough, though, there are new if arguable insights into the play in a short BBC "Perspective on Shakespeare" film that follows it. This essay was written and delivered by feminist Germaine Greer and actually shot in Verona, which would have been a fine place to do the play itself.
A spokesman for Channel 26 says the play will be interrupted twice tonight for fund-pledging pleas. It will be repeated tomorrow at 1 p.m. and again Saturday, March 24, at 1 p.m., by which time the money-raising hardsell will be over.