Perfectly timed to open at the tail-end of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, the penultimate production in Kenneth Branagh’s year of theatre is Romeo and Juliet – probably the greatest tragic romance of all time and arguable the most well-known of his plays. Even if you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in your life, chances are you’ll know the plot of Romeo and Juliet, potentially a couple of quotes and the fact it has a balcony scene (which was never actually specified in the text). As much as scholars and theatre-lovers may argue that Hamlet, Henry V, Richard III or any other has had a greater impact on the nature of theatre and on the acting profession, Romeo and Juliet has become an intrinsic and recognisable part of the pop culture landscape
Appropriate then, that Branagh’s two leads are most famous for their TV roles – Richard Madden as Game of Thrones Robb Stark and Lily James as Downton Abbey’s Lady Rose – bringing with them a sizeable young fan base that will have some familiarity with at least the story of this play. Yet it is a very difficult play to do well, largely because our tolerance for highly romantic language and the arduous innocence of the young lovers is, these days, tinged with considerable cynicism. As world-weary adults we condemn their teenage crush and feel sure that had they lived they probably would’ve been sick of each other within 6 months. So, the modern audience poses a considerable problem for a director who has to navigate the original language with shifting attitudes to this lovelorn tale.
Many of the critics assumed that Branagh’s stumbling block would be the comedies, most especially The Painkiller which instead proved a triumphant hit, not least with audiences who loved it. Of all the plays in the season, however, it was Romeo and Juliet that I had most doubts about for the reasons above and the relatively untested power of the leads. Yet, Branagh has again proven his mettle as a director by creating an imaginative and compelling piece of theatre that somehow perfectly navigates the pitfalls of this play.
Set in sleek 1950s Italy, it opens in the middle of a stone piazza, with café tables and idle young men in shirt sleeves enjoying the heat. Immediately you think of West Side Story (itself a version of this play) and we get a sense of a world in which the young feel oppressed by the authority of the old, desperate to fight each other but not daring to. It bristles with masculine energy as the warring Montagues and Capulets circle each other trading insults. The palette is entirely black, white and grey, implying a realm of respectability and power invested in ageing men, but one that offers glamorous women and fancy parties. And Branagh, with co-director and choreographer Rob Ashford, have introduced a number of innovations including a nice dance piece at the Capulet’s ball and having three sung speeches, including Juliet taking to the microphone at the party and spotting Romeo for the first time. It’s subtly done but adds a nice touch of variety and modernity to the delivery.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how funny it is in the first half, and clearly drawing on his recent productions, Branagh has repurposed some of the more sentimental speechifying and given it a comedy edge, not least in the (in)famous balcony scene. Usually this is played as an earnest confession of love, but here the 14 year old Juliet is drunk from the party and Romeo is still playing the charming lothario, and only towards the end of the scene do they both begin to express sincere emotion for one another. It’s done with restraint so the comedy is never overt and brings fresh interpretation to one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s scenes which will appeal to more current attitudes. Instead of laughing at the high-language we’re being shown the humour in the gaucheness and embarrassment of the characters as they try to express their feelings for each other. It works.
The second half is quite a different beast and here the full danger of inter-family rivalry and the tangled plot in which the lovers find themselves is realised. The atmosphere is permanently charged with emotion – be it grief, anger or love – and the more leisurely pace quickly increases as things converge. It is a marked change of tone which finally allows the actors to intensify their performances and love no longer has a comedic role, instead it is now driving events and becomes completely compelling.
Richard Madden and Lily James have real chemistry as the ‘star-crossed’ pair, and their desire for one another is entirely believable throughout. They nicely navigate their way from love at first sight, through their first nervous exchanges to a physical passion for one another that ultimately consumes them. Madden’s Romeo is initially harder to get to grips with as he rushes some lines and seems to be charming Juliet without entirely devoting himself, but it’s soon clear that this almost rehearsed smoothness is intentional, and it is only mid-way through the balcony scene that you see him realise she is more than another conquest to him and that he begins to feel deeply. Madden grows in the role as events play out and later he equates the violence of Romeo’s love with the more brutal side of his manliness which results in a number of deaths – so as his feelings for Juliet become more firmly established so to do his violent tendencies. Much later in the play as he discovers Juliet’s fate, Madden is excellent at conveying his devastation, making his final scenes quite moving and he will find greater depths of emotion as he gets more performances under his belt.
Lily James is also a great Juliet, capturing the girlish innocence of the 14 year old – an interesting decision to retain that element of the play – experiencing her first feelings of love, lust and rebellion. Of the two it’s the harder role to convince in because Juliet is all emotion so in the wrong hands can seem unvarying and mawkish. Unlike Romeo she has no other developed subplots and speaks almost entirely of love and marriage throughout the play (whether about Romeo or Paris), so in James’s performance it’s fascinating to see greater variety particularly adding texture to the changing relationship with her parents and a steeliness in her final act. And although the balcony scene emphasises the comedy it’s clear throughout that James has a feel for the verse which make Juliet’s declarations of love entirely convincing and heartfelt.
There has been much conjecture about Derek Jacobi’s casting as much older Mercutio than usual but in the context of this production it seems to work well, evidence of another Branagh / Ashford innovation in the way the text has been interpreted. Jacobi gives us a rather camp and effeminate Mercutio, who loves parties and makes a grand first entrance with a silky sway to the music at the Capulet’s ball. We see him then as a peacemaker, far removed from the family turf war and a bit of an old roué. And while it does make his final scene with Tybalt a little ridiculous – how on earth he thought he was going to beat a 20-something in a sword fight – it makes him the first innocent destroyed by the feud. Jacobi is part of the comic charm of the first act that makes his demise all the more shocking and a clear catalyst for the more serious business to come.
There’s a good supporting cast including Myra Syal extracting as much comedy as she can from the role of the Nurse, while Michael Rouse has a standout scene as Lord Capulet tearing into his undutiful daughter and emphasising the dangerous power of these senior men that can easily erupt into violence when crossed. A shame then that the war between the two families feels a little anaemic – and having Mercutio in a comedy role does take away from Romeo’s gang of young thugs – so you don’t get that feeling of danger all the time or that peace is teetering on a knife’s edge. We see that potential in Rouse’s explosive scene but a little more of that early on would help to heighten the tension and make it clear what’s at stake.
Credit also to James, Syal and Marisa Berenson (playing Lady Capulet) for not allowing an audience member’s inexplicable screaming fit to derail their final scene. She was escorted out in less than 15 seconds and the actors resumed unphased. Overall then, Romeo and Juliet is a fine addition to the Branagh series and should garner positive reviews in a couple of days (the disadvantage of buying tickets a year ahead is never knowing when press night will be). It feels contemporary, has taken innovative approaches to some of the tricky aspects of performing this romantic tragedy and delivers a range of interesting performances, not least from its two star leads who will find more meaning as the run extends. And if the tragic ending (beautifully played incidentally) is not sad enough, this is the last Shakespeare of the inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company and it means we only have one production left. With four wonderful shows under its belt, hopes are high for The Entertainer in August.
Romeo and Juliet is at the Garrick Theatre until 13 August. Tickets start at £15 for the daily front-row lottery and the show will be broadcast to cinemas on 7 July. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1