Romeo & Juliet – National Theatre

Romeo & Juliet - National Theatre (by Rob Youngson)

Almost exactly a year ago the National Theatre unknowingly instigated a significant change in the way that we create and consume theatre when it made its 2011 production of One Man Two Guvnors freely available online for a few days. That day home digital theatre as we now know it was born and 16-weeks of archive showings followed, joined first by venues all over the country sharing pre-recorded material and before long the development and live streaming of brand new content. 12 months later hundreds of shows have been produced, some through established venues, others created by small companies seizing the opportunity to share their performances using video calling platforms and streaming channels, some live, some pre-recorded and made available on demand. In some ways theatre will never be the same.

The National Theatre has lead this kind of innovation before when it created its National Theatre Live service to record and distribute productions to cinemas. And in the last year, this new online community of supporters was officially recognised with the launch of its on-demand streaming service – National Theatre at Home – the natural culmination of this international interest in watching past productions. The National also advanced the creation and sharing of new commissions when lockdown regulations preemptively ended its runs of Death of England: Delroy and the second pantomime in its history Dick Whittington, both of which were streamed for free.

Now the National looks again to the future with a hybrid production of Romeo & Juliet conceived and filmed during November’s lockdown and broadcast in the UK on Sky Arts with a PBS American premiere to follow later in the month. Based on a production originally announced for last summer that was derailed by the pandemic, this hybrid film directed by Simon Godwin (Antony and Cleopatra) retains the services of intended stars Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor and in using the large Lyttleton Theatre, follows in the footsteps of Ian Rickson’s Uncle Vanya for the BBC and even more pertinently Curve Leicester’s Sunset Boulevard in Concert in acknowledging the theatre space that contains it.

What makes this beautiful 90-minute film especially interesting for theatre is its collaborative process of creation in which actors, director, creative team and crucially, the cinematographer worked together throughout the rehearsal and filming period to develop a vision for a piece that manages to be inherently theatrical and a successful movie experience. This combination of quite different technical skills and requirements is a potentially exciting byproduct of filmed theatre where different kinds of creative input and the development of transferable skills can shift perspectives on how a show can use different narrative and visual techniques to tell a story.

Adapted by Emily Burns for the screen, this production manages to successfully combine both strands of Romeo & Juliet, creating a love story that is believable despite its slight premise and a context of simmering violence in which the two families openly contend and it is rare to see both so well conceived in the same production. In fact, what sets the National’s new version apart is just how inextricably linked they are, moving beyond a surface reading of the text in which the lovers are separated by family enmity, to demonstrate throughout that the emotional extremes that project the ferocity of Romeo and Juliet’s love and the burning hate between Capulet and Montague are equivalent and unruled passions with only one deadly outcome.

This darkness imbues the 95-minute film from its earliest moments as a cast of players gather in a National Theatre rehearsal room to perform this story for themselves alone. As Lucian Msamati’s Friar begins the play’s famous prologue, scenes from the inevitable future flash across the screen, anticipating what is to come but also giving this production a driving predestination. It is a technique the film uses in several crucial moments as both Romeo and Juliet foresee momentary snatches of their future echoing back to them as physical actions in the present such as Juliet lamenting Romeo’s departure, laying across the bed with an arm outstretched just as she will a few hours ahead when taking her fateful sleeping draft.

In slimming this lengthy play to a curt running time, Burns has had to jettison vast amounts of text particularly from the secondary characters and instead hones in on the initiation and development of what is here an intense love story, though even the soliloquies are reduced largely to the essential narrative requirements and well-known lines. But it has been skillfully done and Burns never loses the psychological purpose of the characters or the complexity of their interactions with their families or the social, religious and political structures of the city.

That this version of Verona is a savage place is abundantly clear, and while the editing choices mean that Mercutio and Tybalt in particular are dispatched far too soon and with so little time to give further substance to their individual personalities, Burns’s approach shuts down all avenues of escape or hope for the lovers unable to turn to their cold families or flick-knife wielding friends for assistance. Even the comedy of the Nurse is mostly put aside in order to imprison the leads and drive them to destruction.

As a first time film director with extensive understanding of staging and eliciting the emotional complexity of Shakespeare’s characters, Godwin has achieved something remarkable in this movie by marrying his understanding of stage intimacy with the much smaller scale projection that a camera demands. Some of our most creative directors regularly and very successfully move between theatre and film, and the influence of both forms of art can be seen in the complexity of the work they produce. Comparing Sam Mendes work on The Ferryman or The Lehman Trilogy and 1917 it is possible to see how they influence each other, a feeling of orchestration where Mendes is able to control the grand narrative while still drawing-out the intricacy of the human stories within it. Danny Boyle has a similar vision in his stage and film work, and comparing Frankenstein with Steve Jobs there is an intuitive understanding of visual design and the impact of theatrical spaces that is enhanced by a considered technical understanding of lighting, perspective and narrative devices.

Godwin has developed a similar eye and uses the theatre space here in quite an unusual way to create the scale of theatre with the proximity of bodies engaged in acts of affection, love and destruction. The conceit in this Romeo & Juliet is that the rehearsal room and its plain-clothed actors becomes the colourful world of Verona although Godwin holds back in marking this change until the party scene at the Capulets where the lovers first encounter one another. And while the actors have transitioned fully into their characters only to return briefly in the film’s closing scene, the stage area still quite deliberate forms the boundaries of their existence as Shakespeare implies in several plays – the opening Chrous of Henry V being the most famous.

Filmed in the Lyttelton Theatre, you will be hard pressed to recognise much of it, the playing space demarcated by iron doors that are the limits of Verona from which the costumed Romeo is eventually exiled into an adjoining but empty ante-room where he has no means of escape. That crucial scenes take place amidst the scenery struts in a thin corridor and on metal gantries cleverly imply how tangential the business of the family rivalry becomes to the lovers whose own scenes are fully staged in realised rooms – they are each other’s reality and while Romeo in particular traverses these other spaces, it is in these other more tangible locations that sadly for his friends his priorities, mind and purpose belong.

When Godwin shows the lovers together it is with close-ups so tight the viewer is almost within their embraces, the fierceness of their passion – as with his Antony and Cleopatra – unbounded by reason or parental order. But in what can often be a relationship that is hard to invest in, the proximity of Godwin’s lens gives these scenes a different level of intensity, an all or nothing consuming purpose that makes the brief time they have known one another seem irrelevant. Their relationship is desperate, urgent and ungovernable but surrounded by danger that is reflected in Godwin’s shot choices that build on his own experience as a theatre director.

Visually, this version of Romeo & Juliet is incredibly stylish but design is used in ways that enhances the story – a Soutra Gilmour trademark – using particular colours and tonal palettes. Romeo is always dressed in a pale hues with white, beige and brown that reflect the softer, dreamier nature of his personality while Juliet is given shades of emerald green primarily that set her against the magical masked ball and later the simpler tones of the other characters. The production is beautifully lit in a way that only stage lighting can ever achieve, contrasting the warmth and moonlit romance of the brief courtship with the stark daylight that intrudes so cruelly as the machinations of their families comes between them.

Jessie Buckley is a remarkable Juliet, not the childlike and romantic interpretation we often see but an intense and almost crazed interpretation that has a genuine maturity of feeling. This Juliet understands what is at stake in every moment of the play and Romeo’s appearance taps into a deep-rooted need within her that she is unable to control. There are hints that the coldness of her mother and flustering nurse have left Juliet craving a true affinity but Buckley finds levels of anxiety, fear and almost fanaticism in Juliet’s connection to Romeo, her mind spinning with worry that he won’t arrange their marriage and later almost clawing at herself as she becomes hemmed in by the proposed match with Paris. Buckley’s Juliet seems always on the edge of despair, not exactly fragile but driven by a gnawing mania that takes her towards destruction like Cathy in Wuthering Heights. There is clearly a Lady Macbeth at some point in her future.

Josh O’Connor’s Romeo is less soulfully troubled but is equally thwarted by the interventions of fate. His own family connection is downplayed here so instead Romeo is struggling to balance the aggressive manly posturing expected of him and the softer feelings he has first for Rosaline and then for Juliet. O’Connor is particular good at these tender-hearted moments as the brooding Romeo of the opening scene evolves into the intoxicated lover, speaking the verse with real feeling that brings a credibility to their love-at-first-sight relationship. We see O’Connor’s Romeo act impulsively in his love for Juliet and in defence of his friend, both of which remain entirely consistent with his gentler nature, while the consequences of his rashness are convincingly depicted when his marriage to Juliet becomes his last refuge and hope.

Although the supporting cast have relatively less screen time this cast of National Theatre regulars amply flesh-out Veronese society. Msamati has incredible gravitas as the slightly sinister Friar Laurence who defies protocol by aiding the lovers while concocting all manner of alarming potions in his cell, but there is just enough affection for the couple in Msamati’s performance that makes his support convincing while amplifying the conspiratorial nature of the play that also puts him at risk if discovered. Tamsin Greig is brilliant as a calculating Lady Capulet whose softly spoken steel is enough to hold Tybalt (David Judge) back from murdering Romeo at the party and drips sufficient poison in her daughter’s ear to force her hand. We see too little of Deborah Findlay’s nurse, Adrian Lester’s furiously exasperated Prince and Fisayo Akinade’s Mercutio but each adds much to the texture of the overall production despite their limited screentime.

With Director of Photography Tim Sidell and Composer Michael Bruce in the rehearsal room, this hybrid theatre and film production has been a fascinating experiment resulting in a smart, interesting and entirely collaborative piece of art. The influence of digital theatre productions will be long, felt not only in the continuation of streaming in some form and the creation of blended movies like this one, but the techniques and approaches developed together. That’s not to say that all theatre productions will overtly incorporate filmic devices but through such open collaboration as the National has demonstrated here, directors, actors, designers and cinematographers learn from one another. From these perspectives new methods of storytelling are being born and it will be fascinating to see where it takes us.

Romeo & Juliet was created by the National Theatre and screened on Sky Arts on 4th April with a PBS screening the USA on 23 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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