A new film of William Shakespeare’s iconic and tragic love story, “Romeo & Juliet, ”premiered April 23, 2021 on PBS’ Great Performances series. It was adapted for television by Emily Burns and produced by the National Theatre, in association with Sabel Productions and Cuba Pictures. Executive producers are Rufus Norris, Director and Joint Chief Executive of the National Theatre; Dixie Linder, Cuba Pictures; David Horn, “Great Performances;” Christine Schwarzman and Darren Johnston, No Guarantees; and Philip Edgar Jones, Sky Arts. Filmed over 17 days, the play is directed by Simon Godwin (Artistic Director of Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC) and stars Josh O’Connor (The Crown, The Durrells in Corfu) and Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, Fargo) in the title roles. The play was intended to open right before the pandemic and this was the National Theatre’s way of bringing it to an audience.
The National Theatre bring a fresh interpretation to Shakespeare’s beloved love story. It a must-see for those who are passionate about the Bard’s work and wonderful introduction to anyone who has never seen the play. Godwin and the producers took a chance and hit the jackpot.
This is a stylized production that “celebrates the theatrical imagination, moving from the stripped-down aesthetic of a rehearsal into a cinematic journey that embraces the architecture of the theatre space and varied backstage spaces of the National’s Lyttelton Theatre.” The production, as we follow these two teens, takes us from our pandemic isolation and closed theaters to a place of hope where we can forget our differences, even when one is a Montague and one a Capulet.
This version is somber, with little humor and no comic relief. Presenting Shakespeare in modern dress in a modern sets is not new, but this production has some unique staging. The ensemble starts off backstage in rehearsal clothing. As the drama progresses, their clothing stays modern but is more formal — suits and ties replace very casual togs. The setting is very fluid, going back and forth between the rehearsal space behind the stage to the stage itself as the set transforms into something more traditional. The first noticeable change is the famous balcony scene that uses a lit moon and a balcony. Tamsin Greig who plays Lady Capulet put it this way, “It is almost like the building is allowing the story to be told.”
The dialogue, too, is more modern. The actual length of the production is one hour and 30 minutes. If you are a Shakespeare buff who needs to hear every line of dialogue, this might not be a version for you but I enjoyed the faster pace. The accents are contemporary, more present-day English in tone. Other liberties are taken such as the unexpected take on the relationship between Mercutio and Benvolio. Juliet sings a modern melody at the masked ball which looks more like a nightclub or rave. Gone are the swords which are replaced by switchblades. The fight scene is grittier and more reminiscent of “West Side Story,” the brilliant 1950s musical based on the play.
I appreciated that the dialogue is more conversational. Because it is film, the actors did not have to worry about projection. They could speak more softly and intimately as you would if you were talking to a friend, family member, or lover.
O’Connor creates a brooding teenage Romeo and he has a wonderful chemistry with Buckley as his Juliet. Buckley captures the essence of a fourteen-year-old experiencing her first love. Both are very believable and intriguing portrayals.
The cast also features Fisayo Akinade as Mercutio, Shubham Saraf as Benvolio, Deborah Findlay as the Nurse, David Judge as Tybalt, Alex Mugnaioni as Paris, Ellis Howard as Sampson, Tamsin Greig as Lady Capulet, Lucian Msamati as the Friar, Adrian Lester as the Prince, Lloyd Hutchinson as Lord Capulet, Colin Tierney as Lord Montague, and Ella Dacres as Peta. This ensemble is without flaw. I particularly enjoyed Akinade as Mercutio and Greig as Lady Capulet. The former is more than just Romeo’s buddy — his character has more depth. Greig’s Lady Capulet is more developed and very interesting, as well.
Goodwin’s direction adds life to the performances and allows us to accept this unusual concept. I welcomed all the physical intimacy between the characters which seemed very natural. I may have just noticed it a bit more acutely because of the pandemic because human contact was/is so limited.
Set designer Soutra Gilmour ’s sets and costumes are intrinsic to the concept of this evolving production.
The National Theatre bring a fresh interpretation to Shakespeare’s beloved love story. It a must-see for those who are passionate about the Bard’s work and it is wonderful introduction to anyone who has never seen the play. Godwin and the producers took a chance and hit the jackpot.
Running Time: Two hours including a snippet from the cast and crew and a short documentary with Ralph Fiennes about the play itself after the performance.
Shakespeare Theatre Company also hosted a free, pre-show celebration with award-winning actor Claire Danes (Homeland, My So-Called Life) for a special conversation about her time starring in Baz Luhrmann’s film “Romeo + Juliet.”