The familiar but timeless tale of Romeo and Juliet hit our screens once again on the 4th of April and did not fail to impress. The 90-minute National Theatre instalment shown on Sky Arts reminded many of the magic of theatre and the joys of Shakespeare. As an avid theatre-goer before the pandemic, the chance to enjoy a reimagined classic brought back for me the excitement of sitting in the stalls.
Unlike other National Theatre Live productions, which are previous recordings of shows with their full audiences from when they were on stage, Simon Godwin’s recording was created specifically for the screen. Filmed across seventeen days, with no audience, and a greater use of editing and set changes, this piece was a hybrid between stage and screen, yet it was able to retain a theatre-like awe and wonder. The extensive use of the backstage spaces made the production intimate and modern, whilst the more formal elements of the set, such as the ballroom, bedrooms and drawing rooms, keep the play from being too far removed from the original setting in 16th-century Viennese high society. The constant reminder of the stage-like features, such as rails, props, and the safety curtain, distinguished the piece from a conventional film, and was one of the key elements that made the audience miss the theatre experience. It also meant the stage was pared-down and allowed for greater focus on the actors, and their emotional story. However, the incorporation of film segments, including unique scene transitions and effective flashbacks, were welcome.
Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley perform the title roles effortlessly and lead an award-winning cast that includes Tamsin Greig, Fisayo Akinade, Adrian Lester, Lucian Msamati, and Deborah Findlay. Buckley is a strong, rebellious and passionate young woman, not a weak air-headed schoolgirl. Her Juliet is portrayed as an almost punk-like, resilient character who wears her heart on her sleeve, and Buckley has some moments of sublime acting, particularly in her soliloquies and final speech, which evoke the passion and trauma of being a young woman trapped in a forbidden love. O’Connor also performs his role with ease, portraying Romeo as a young, quiet and pensive man. Unlike his brash and excitable boyish friends, he is melancholic at first and appears completely awoken when he meets Juliet. The pair do not act as though they are children or teenagers. They are young adults who have an exceptional love and are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. The couple both bring a level of maturity and emotional depth, but remain playful and have an incredibly powerful chemistry.
The production has a sense of running out of time and the young lovers are trying to escape the inevitable. This is emphasised further thanks to the short length of the play, as well as through the contrast between the slow and sensual moments between the couple, and the tense, fast-paced action occurring around them. Juliet’s soliloquy overlays shots of her and Romeo’s longing expressions and intimacy, while the marriage sequence is filmed slowly and has a magical quality with the backdrop of candles.
There were some interesting changes of character which updated the play, such as the insertion of a robust female role and a gay couple, which was a welcome addition to the overall modernised rendition. Tamsin Grieg as Lady Capulet is a harsh, menacing woman who is most concerned with the reputation of her daughter, taking over much of what was originally dialogue spoken by her husband, which added another strong female character as opposed to allowing the play to be too heavily male-dominated. Mercutio and Benvolio have an underlying relationship that represents both friendship and a tragic love parallel to that of the central couple, although it was perhaps unable to be fully explored in 90 minutes.
While it was a pity that Adrian Lester’s role as the Prince was brief, given that he is an excellent actor, the Nurse and Friar Lawrence, played by Deborah Findlay and Lucian Msamati respectively, were comforting characters, which, against Juliet’s harsh parents, added a humanity and kindness to the adult characters. Those fond of these characters may be disappointed to see their parts reduced, but the directorial decision to centralise Romeo and Juliet made their love story all the more intense and encapsulating.
Overall, this novel retelling of Shakespeare’s most well-known play was as exciting as it was original. This National Theatre production is modern and the intimate setting works well, while Buckley and O’Connor masterfully reinvigorate this classic tale.