In 1967, boyish British actor Bruce Robinson found himself sat in a Rome hotel room alongside Franco Zeffirelli. Having been hired to play the role of Benvolio in Zeffirelli's adaptation of Romeo And Juliet, Robinson assumed he'd been summoned to discuss the part. Instead he found himself fending off the Italian's unsubtle advances. Intent, as Robinson later put it, on "fishing about for my tonsils with his tongue," the young actor did his best to fend off the great artists, only for Zeffirelli to reply, "Are you a stone or a sponge?" Twenty-two years on, Robinson's encounter in general and Zeffirelli's response in particular would provide one of the many highlights of his directorial debut, Withnail And I.
If Zeffirelli's conduct was farcical bordering on frightening, there was nothing laughable about his abilities behind the camera. Having already directed Taylor and Burton in a wonderfully fruity The Taming Of The Shrew, he appeared just the right man to set about the most famous of love stories. And shy of one unfortunate casting choice, Zeffirelli did a fine job of reintroducing the world to one of its greatest plays.
In an age when Shakespeare has been relocated everywhere from the council estates of London (Christine Edzard's As You Like It) to the all-night supermarkets of New York (Michael Almereyada's Hamlet), it's rather refreshing to see the Bard's work in its intended location. While Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey might not be as luminescent as Leonard DiCaprio and Claire Danes, their rather more everyday appearance lends the story a universal quality lacking from Luhrmann's film, which seemed entirely populated by soap actors and Calvin Klein models.
Alas, while he might look the part, Whiting is as wet and out of his depth as his name suggests. Hussey, however, is very good and deserves credit not only for her performance but for all the rubbish she had to cop from Zeffirelli about her ampleness. In these days where actresses seem to subsist on a diet of cigarettes and Ryvita, it's nice to see a Juliet who doesn't look as if she's about to pop off to the loo to purge herself.
It's also a great pleasure to spend time in the company of actors such as Michael York, who subsequently became a huge star, and John McEnery, who wound up playing opposite Doug McClure and herds of rubber dinosaurs in The Land That Time Forgot. That McEnery didn't capitalise upon this performance is remarkable when you consider how good he is as Mercutio. Then again, maybe his success in the role has less to do with his talent than with Zeffirelli's direction. The filmmaker certainly has quite an effect on his cast - even that appalling old ham Milo O'Shea is perfectly acceptable as Friar Laurence
But what of Bruce Robinson's Benvolio? Sadly, it would seem the actor was as resistant to Zeffirelli's direction as he was to his advances. Still, if you weren't already glad that the actor decided to pick up his pen, you might be after suffering through this rather stiff workout.