Life & Culture

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet

The National Theatre's filmed production of is so good, that it is difficult to imagine it would be better as a live performance


When Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim got their hands on Romeo and Juliet, they improved on Shakespeare so much that I have never been able to view the play without wishing I was watching West Side Story.

But not with this new version of the tragedy, filmed by Simon Godwin one of the National Theatre’s star directors. Though he is now based in Washington DC where he runs the Shakespeare Theatre Company (or will when it reopens) Godwin and his cast spent 17 days shooting the play on the National’s Lyttelton stage.

Like many a show there the action starts with the giant, solid curtain separating horizontally, the great rupture revealing a set-less stage of relaxed actors clad in everyday clothes. This might be a rehearsal. When Josh O’Connor, who played Prince Charles in The Crown, smiles at Jessie Buckley, and she smiles back, it is not at all clear if they have begun being Romeo and Juliet.

Yet there is no time to dwell on this, or anything. Over its one and a half hours this production moves at such speed you may wonder what’s missing before quickly realising that everything essential is here. As Juliet and Romeo, Buckley and O’Connor generate a chemistry that dissolves the notion that Shakespeare’s lovers are naive to the point of being a bit thick. On the contrary. These lovers may be impetuous, but they are clever, knowing and savvy to the politics of the place and period in which they live.

Buckley’s Juliet has to be. In this version it is her mother, Lady Capulet played by a terrifying Tamsin Greig, who rules the roost. Greig asserts authority with whispered, icy threat and a control freakery that verges on the murderous.

Against this maternal tyranny the depth of despair felt by Juliet is anything but self-indulgent. Buckley’s is a deeply affecting, beautiful judged performance in which every gesture is an expression of emotional honesty. Meanwhile, the supporting performances are flawless. David Judge’s Tybalt is a coiled killer and Deborah Findlay is typically excellent as Nurse, the carer’s usually unwavering allegiance to her charge Juliet is something more Machiavellian and self serving here. Adrain Lester exudes moral authority when he pops up as the ruling Prince and Lucian Msamati is also terrific as the well-meaning Friar.

Yet the slightly unsettling point made by this production, which was originally intended for the National’s Olivier stage and would have never existed in this form were it not for the pandemic, is that it is hard to imagine that a live performance could ever be as driven or urgent as this one.

There would have been none of the editing that inserts flashes of future events into the present, like premonition. And there would have been no hand-held camera that gets so close to the lovers’ faces you can almost feel their breath.

This gem then is a rare silver lining of the pandemic and is going to be hard to follow for anyone planning a performance of the tragedy in front of a live audience when theatres finally open.


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