Superb performances are a feature of National Theatre’s lockdown Romeo & Juliet as it comes to the big screen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom National Theatre Live (p)review – Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet: Filmed (directed by Simon Godwin) in the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre in December 2020 and reviewed on Sky Arts. (JPr)

(l-r) Jessie Buckley, Lucian Msamati & Josh O’Connor (c) Rob Youngson

Director – Simon Godwin
Designer – Soutra Gilmour
Adapter/Associate director – Emily Burns
Composer – Michael Bruce
Movement directors – Shelley Maxwell, Jonathan Goddard
Fight director – Kate Waters
Director of photography – Tim Sidell

Mercutio – Fisayo Akinade
Juliet – Jessie Buckley
Peta – Ella Dacres
Nurse – Deborah Findlay
Lady Capulet – Tamsin Greig
Sampson – Ellis Howard
Lord Capulet Lloyd Hutchinson
David Judge – Tybalt
Prince – Adrian Lester
Friar Laurence – Lucian Msamati
Alex Mugnaioni – Paris
Josh O’Connor – Romeo
Shubham Saraf – Benvolio
Colin Tierney – Lord Montague

The National Theatre’s critically acclaimed original film Romeo & Juliet will be screened in selected cinemas for one night only on Tuesday 28 September (for more information click here). Directed by Simon Godwin, this ninety-minute version was filmed in 17 days in the NT’s Lyttelton theatre in December 2020 while it was closed due to the pandemic. It has been adapted for the screen by Emily Burns and the film premiered on Sky Arts in the UK on 4 April and PBS in the US later the same month. This is the first time the film is available in the cinema. Godwin explains: ‘When we came to make Romeo & Juliet as a film, we had always wanted it to succeed as well on screen as it ever would on stage. So, it is the ultimate thrill for all the creatives involved that it is now having its chance to be seen on the big screen. Shakespeare, as Derek Jarman once said, would’ve loved cinema. I’m excited to imagine Shakespeare eating his popcorn watching his wonderful play lit up and brought to life on the big screen in such a dazzling way.’

It may come as a surprise but I have reached a seventh decade but have never watched Shakespeare’s original Romeo and Juliet, though I have seen it distilled as both opera and ballet. What we get in this captivating ninety minutes is, I suspect, the CliffsNotes of the play, all the good bits and some of the padding (pace the Bard) removed. I believe some of the lines might be swopped between characters and the wonderful Lucian Msamati – otherwise a caring and conspiratorial Friar Laurence – intones the prologue and some of Lord Capulet’s words might have been spoken by the not particularly pleasant – and ultimately pitiless – Lady Capulet (Tamsin Greig, a more serious version of the matriarch she is in TV’s Friday Night Dinner). Elsewhere the servant originally Peter is now Peta (Ella Dacres), whilst Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade) and Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) are in a relationship.

We begin on the stage of the Lyttelton Theatre with the actors in their everyday clothes entering to sit around in a square for a read-through. The paraphernalia of the rehearsal studio is plain for all to see with costumes on rails at the back and a few props and stage furniture (including an orange sofa, bed with gold bedspread and a door) we will later see in some of the minimally dressed scenes. Actors acknowledge one another including Josh O’Connor and Jess Buckley who smile across at each other (are they in character or is that personal?). Nevertheless, soon Simon Godwin’s direction and Tim Sidell’s mobile camera work draws us into the unfolding tragedy: violence breaks out and we understand the ongoing enmity between the rival houses of the Capulets and the Montagues before the Capulet’s faithful Nurse (Deborah Findlay) issues invites to a ‘ball’. Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech introduces us to Michael Bruce’s atmospheric music which during the film will develop hints of Einaudi.

National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet (c) Rob Youngson

As well as the rehearsal footage Godwin employs some haunting flash forwards, as well as other cinematic tropes such as slow motion and he heightens the drama by occasionally using the safety curtain as prop in its own right. It first rises to draw us into a rave; there are chandeliers, those there are in Venetian masks and there is something hazy and hallucinogenic about it all. A subtly seductive Juliet is hardly the play’s virginal teenager and is performing like an Amy Winehouse tribute act before the chemistry between her and Romeo becomes self-evident, and they kiss and make their escape. Under a huge full moon Romeo takes a ladder to Juliet’s balcony where she internalises ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’. The story races on but never loses its grip: there is a candlelit marriage; some rough and tumble with David Judge’s menacing Tybalt sees Mercutio get fatally stabbed; Romeo chases Tybalt to a gantry above the stage and despatches him resulting in his banishment from Verona to Mantua.

Romeo visits Friar Laurence and steals some poison and so the die is cast (dice actually play some part in Rudolf Nureyev’s ballet version of the story). After a brief passionate scene, Romeo bids farewell to Juliet. (Spoiler alert) Juliet is being pursued by Paris (a rather stiff Alex Mugnaioni) and to avoid a fate worse than death, she chooses a death of sorts orchestrated by Friar Laurence who promises she will awake after several hours have passed simply as if from ‘a pleasant sleep’. Juliet ‘dies’ on her bed surrounded with the other cast members sitting around and this never seems an artificial intrusion on her privacy but a shared experience; Benvolio gets news of her death to Romeo before Friar Laurence can get to him and, well, I’m sure you know how it all ends. The young lovers succumb to their fate to leave a sad and reflective Prince of Verona (Adrian Lester) with the famous final words: ‘For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo’.

Superb performances all round from a cast with much Shakespeare in their resumés: I’ve mentioned him already, but the charismatic Lucian Msamati (Friar Laurence) bestrides this Romeo & Juliet ‘like a colossus’ (which actually comes from Julius Caesar!). Josh O’Connor is a little gawky as the brooding, lovelorn Romeo but is dramatically convincing opposite Jessie Buckley’s confident, headstrong Juliet who is seething with unfulfilled passion and whose outsider status is enhanced by her native Irish brogue.

If you haven’t seen it do go and see this Romeo & Juliet at a cinema near you and if you have, I’m sure it’s worth a second look ‘on the big screen’.

Jim Pritchard

Leave a Comment