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BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET, Sky Arts

An innovative hybrid of film and theatre from the National Theatre

BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET, Sky Arts

BWW Review: ROMEO & JULIET, Sky Arts Simon Godwin's much-hyped version of Romeo & Juliet at the National Theatre was originally slated for summer 2020. Not to be outdone by the pandemic, a new version was filmed in just seventeen days on a closed set in the Lyttelton theatre and is now being broadcast on Sky Arts, with a PBS airing in the US to follow later this month. Combining elements of both stage and screen, this is a unique and magical version of Shakespeare's iconic play.

It is always a challenge to attempt to do something original with a play as well-known as Romeo & Juliet, but there are elements of this production that feel genuinely innovative, exciting and fresh.

The actors arrive on the Lyttelton stage as if to start rehearsals, with the prologue spoken as a chat to the cast. Backstage is the stage; the cast move around the unseen areas of the theatre, surrounded by clothing rails and piles of props, interspersed with scenes performed in more traditional sets. The large white moon casts a ghostly white light in the balcony scene, but is also clearly a prop, which links nicely with Juliet's distain for the "inconstant" moon.

It's all rather meta; a play within a performance. There is a clever combination of theatrical rehearsal and onstage scenes, but it is staged as a film; camera angles are unrestricted, sets are numerous, close-ups are nuanced and sound allows for quiet expression, rather than projection to the empty gallery.

Some scenes feel more cinematic than others, such as a magical sea of candles in the darkness, surrounding the couple in the marriage scene. Others feel more theatrical; the scene where Juliet swallows the Friar's tincture is beautifully staged with Juliet surrounded by the rest of the cast, seated and silently observing her scene in a haunting half-light. Michael Bruce's emotive and often delicate music is an almost constant soundtrack and adds to the filmic qualities of the production.

Best known for his role as Prince Charles in The Crown, Josh O'Connor is a thoughtful and likable Romeo. Jessie Buckley, praised for her roles in films such as Wild Rose, is a passionate, courageous and intelligent Juliet. These are also star-crossed lovers of a much older age. It may be true that love is relevant at any age, but the existence of a nurse seems a little bizarre when her charge is in her thirties.

It is a pity that the couple do not spark enough electric sexual chemistry together; there is a feeling of great affection and close friendship rather than instantaneous adoration. The pair are actually at their best when they are not together. Buckley is exceptionally raw when showing her devastation at the prospect of marrying Paris and O'Connor's portrayal of Romeo's general listlessness before the ball is relaxed and sincere. His distress at Romeo's banishment is particularly palpable and lacks the childish hysterics of some other versions.

At a brisk 90 minutes, editing is inevitable and the focus is very much on the two lovers, but also means the loss of some of the secondary characters.

The role of Mercutio is much reduced and lacks much of the fun and wit of the character and an intriguing kiss between Mercutio and Benvolio is not explored further. Tybalt and his fiery fury and arrogance are barely seen.

Featuring a truly stellar cast, standouts include Tasmin Greig's imperious Lady Capulet who shows great control and cold authority, particularly in her encounters with David Judge's swaggering Tybalt. Deborah Findlay gives depth and dimension to the usually bawdy and overly talkative role of the Nurse and Adrian Lester's Prince is measured and calm.

The whole production feels incredibly natural, from the positioning of the camera angles to the seamless delivery of the dialogue. The language is embraced by the cast, rather than seen as a challenge.

Godwin has fine form with Shakespeare at the National Theatre with his past productions of Anthony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night, but he had never made a film before. Along with lead producer David Sabel, who launched NT Live and director of photography Tim Sidell, Godwin draws the audience into the emotion of the story.

Lockdown has taken so much away from the theatrical community, but it is doubtful that a production like this would have been made without the pandemic. It remains to be seen if this kind of broadcast will translate into future ticket sales, but it stands alone as a beautiful piece of work.

Romeo & Juliet will be broadcast on Sky Arts on 5 and 8 April and on PBS in the US on 23 April

Photo Credit: Rob Youngson

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