National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet
Time to leave behind the world of film festivals and superheroes for a little bit, and dig into something a bit more familiar. In-between my last look at an actual Shakespearean adaptation – Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth back in 2015 – I’ve seen speculative biopics of the man and some stuff “inspired by” his works rather than being direct translations, and enjoyed both. But I was happy, through the TV airing of this new, and the National Theatre’s first flat-out film (NT Live is just recorded stage shows), production, for the chance to watch some more traditional Shakespearean dialogue, even if the production itself promised to be something interesting, if not entirely fresh.
Filmed versions of Romeo & Juliet are in large supply, though for me I do genuinely think that it is difficult to look beyond Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, at least in terms of being the adaptation that has easily made the largest impact on the zeitgeist. Capturing the essence of what youth and young love is in the contemporary moment is absolutely crucial if you want to make this play relevant to viewers: Luhrmann did that in 1996, and I hoped that Simon Godwin could do the same in 2021. Because making this adaptation unique is crucial: this material is too ingrained on the popular consciousness for anything else to be acceptable.
Fair Verona, where we lay our scene: Romeo Montague (Josh O’Connor) and Juliet Capulet (Jessie Buckley) meet at a party and fall passionately in love, despite the blood feud of their families. Overcome by their passions, their quest to be together results in plots, intrigue and murder involving their families and friends, creating an iconic story of woe.
This National Theatre production is something that I really did want to like. I love Shakespeare, I love this play, and I have a lot of time for this cast too, the members of which, while not superstars, I have spotted in a number of other things that I have enjoyed. But I just could not get into this Romeo & Juliet. What should be the Bard’s most easily digestible play is reduced to a series of over-stylised moments, that does a discredit to the performance of the cast and to the timeless words they are asked to deliver.
There are times when you do think that modern perceptions are a detriment to what men like Shakespeare were trying to say. Modernisation of the material in some respects is very welcome (like, say, Juliet no longer being 13) but this Romeo & Juliet decides to place itself very firmly in the camp of the title characters being the protagonists of the story, let down by ignorant parents who do not appreciate their unique passion for one another. The alternative framing, of an unhealthy and too rapidly progressed relationship built on short-term infatuation and lust, is not kept to, with Lady Capulet ultimately portrayed as much of a villain as the murderous Tybalt. The first interpretation has very much become the norm of this material, but I admit I wouldn’t mind seeing some take on the other, in a modern world where examination of toxic relationships is more to the fore than it had arguably ever been,
O’Connor and Buckley are OK in the lead roles. Damning with faint praise there I would say, because neither has the kind of magnetism that you would expect. O’Connor plays Romeo as overly dark and brooding, a smile only on his face in a handful of moments, and if that seems like a strange criticism for the poster boy for dark and brooding I hope you then realise how apparent it must be for me to comment on it. Buckley is better as a Juliet with an Irish accent, she giving the character a sort of punk-lite feel and some rawer sexuality in key scenes that many adaptions eschew for purer-than-pure imagery, and she carries along the needed emotion in scenes opposite Tamdin Greig as Lady Capulet (decent) or Deborah Findley as the Nurse (forgettable, but some of her best lines are cut). O’Connor was better in the role of Mr Elton in Emma., and Buckley has done better work recently with better direction, namely in her scene-stealing role in Chernobyl.
What’s worse, the two have very little of the badly needed chemistry. In one scene, the meeting of Act Two, Scene One, the two have a spark, but it passes as quickly as Romeo’s obsession with Rosaline. In later scenes the two struggle to really sell the idea that they are star-crossed lovers, as opposed to just two young people crashing into each other for a brief moment. O’Connor is just too under-stated as Romeo, muddling along to all of the things that happen to him or that he does to other people and he doesn’t line up well with Buckley’s more manic energy as Juliet.
The supporting cast largely fade into the background, which is a shame as there are some very good names here. Grieg, playing an amalgamation of the Capulet parents, is intense and a little scary, David Judge is arrogantly militant as Tybalt, Fisayo Akinade makes the most of his few scenes as Mercutio and the likes of Adrian Lester, Lucian Msamati and Shubham Saraf deliver their roles well. But the manner in which the play is cut means that for most of these people they make far less of an impression than they should have been allowed to make, and the director falls back on cheap visuals to try and make them pop, like the idea presented of Benvolio and Mercutio being lovers: it’s not a terrible notion, but it adds nothing to the story being told, and thus seems like the kind of shallow tokenism the play doesn’t need: why not make the titular characters same-sex instead?
There are some odd choices throughout the film that I feel betray a certain lack of confidence. The one that really stands out is how the it essentially breaks the fourth wall in its opening moments, by showing the cast entering the stage as themselves, sitting sown, listening to the opening monologue – some of them with goofy smiles on their faces for some reason – and only then inhabiting the parts, with some rehearsal shots coming later too. As Juliet prepares to take the poison, she finds herself surrounded by the other cast members, as themselves, in a scene that borders on incomprehensible. Such things should have a larger point to them, perhaps about the roles we play, in the story that follows, but Romeo & Juliet is not that narrative. The very choice of containing everything to one space is also odd: if you want to make a stage show, make a stage show, but if you have the opportunity to go out into the world then I think you should always take it.
As it is, this Romeo & Juliet just can’t make good on some of the plays big moments, the way that other productions have been able to. Mercutio’s death sees some of the very best lines of the moment cut, severely reducing its memorability and impact: other scenes, like Juliet’s confrontation with her mother upon being informed of her imminent marriage to Paris, are allowed to be strung out beyond the point of use. A common issue with adaptations of this property I find is an over-emphasis on the early part of the play, to the detriment of Act Four, and this Romeo & Juliet falls afoul of this as well: much of the productions imaginative capital is expended on the meeting and balcony scenes, and not so much elsewhere, a consequence of the play being cut to fit a 90 minute running time. All the same, there are some welcome things as well: Paris’ kiss of Juliet adds an interesting #metoo dimension to things, and the retention of the same characters death at the hands of Romeo, so commonly omitted in pursuit of emphasising the star-crossed aspect of the plot, as opposed to the manic passion, is to be welcome also.
Visually, it’s a very contained feature, filmed over the course of two-and-a-half weeks (“during a global pandemic”, as the credits make sure to tell us for some reason) solely within the confines of the South Bank space, with a degree of social distancing measures in place (in fairness, the film largely avoids this being obvious). Filming the whole thing on one stage is all well and good, and I did feel that the production made the best of that limited space, in terms of making it look acceptably like a nightclub, a bedroom, a parlour room, a crypt. Simple lighting and prop changes do wonders in that respect, and for nighttime scenes there is an interesting use of light and shadow in some of those very stylised settings. At other moments the choice of literal stage has its downsides, as too often things are forced into needlessly narrow spaces: Mercutio and Tybalt are killed in a hallway for example and generally speaking, in the highest moments of tension the larger moments of drama are undercut by the limitations of the environment (and if they were truly concerned about COVID, why not go outside?).
Sometimes things seem a little too kinetic or shakycam like, and I suspect there have been a few too many single takes when the medium allows for a greater quest for perfection. Godwin in interviews has admitted to a lack of experience and claimed he doesn’t even own a TV, which doesn’t surprise me in retrospect. Trailers for the film had a very sexual aspect to them regards the title characters, but the actual product refrains from this to a certain extent: the more modern preference for showcasing Romeo and Juliet’s wedding night is there of course, but the film errs more towards the less sensational otherwise
Overall I did feel a little let down by this production of Romeo & Juliet. There is a certain level of ambition evident, and I like some of the production choices. Buckley is good in her role, and the supporting cast are decent. But there’s too much else I just wasn’t a big fan of. O’Connor isn’t suited to Romeo, the choices of what to cut leave too much dangling crucial areas, the choices of what to leave in grind some scenes to shuddering halt and the limitations of the physical environment outweigh their advantages. National Theatre has done better Shakespearean adaptations and I am sure they will again: but this one has to go onto the other side of scale. Baz Luhrmann can rest easy: he’s still got the best modern adaptation of this story. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sky Arts).