By Emily Oliver
The National Theatre’s first film endeavour is less a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and more a love letter to theatre itself.
I won’t lie, from the moment I saw the trailer I was infuriated. I was completely closed off to yet another adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Diverse casting but people of colour relegated to the minor roles (to prevent any real social commentary – God forbid!) and two commercially successful actors as the iconic leads. We’ve seen it hundreds of times. ‘I’m bored, National Theatre,’ I thought to myself as I angry-reacted to the trailer on Facebook, ‘show me something new.’ And surprisingly, they did.
The production maintains all of the aforementioned issues, but the choice of Romeo and Juliet feels informed when perceived as a tender appreciation of the power of human connection in the context of the global pandemic. This return to a classic tale in an entirely new style of filmed theatre could only have been born out of 2021 in the reality we find ourselves in. Something truly beautiful has come out of something truly terrible.
The undeniably wistful tone of the prologue, powerfully portrayed within the rehearsal space through the simple and yet resonant image of a group of actors sitting in a circle, renders the initial disclaimer that it is filmed within a global pandemic unnecessary. The scene is laden with a nostalgia for theatre making in its pure and historic form.
Director Simon Godwin’s use of film as a medium felt consistently informed and sensitively responded to the action of the play, continually enhancing the atmosphere rather than hindering it. This is worlds away from the other National Theatre streamed productions in which a series of robotic close ups and wide shots kill the energy and often mean you’re in for an emotionally stilted viewing experience. We see this production grow from its skeletal conception in the rehearsal room to all the stylized performative grandeur of an opening night.
It’s a homage to the simplicity of theatre, a reminder of how it is often forgotten that throwing money at something does not automatically make good art. Theatre is effective with merely actors in a room and somebody to watch them. The production value seems to solidify in line with the feelings of the lovers. As Juliet matures and breaks free from familial expectations her bedroom walls form around her, reflecting her need for privacy in order to shake off external society and live her internal life with Romeo. In this respect every artistic choice is poignant; the form is in love with the content.
Jessie Buckley’s Juliet forms the heart of the production with her playful yet unapologetic approach. She brings both a youthful capacity to trust and a mature sensitivity. Josh O’Connor is a likeable and grounded Romeo though I feel we were never granted the opportunity to unravel his character in particular depth. We never come to understand Romeo’s distinct capacity for great feeling and emotion which sets him apart from many other romantic heroes.
He should mainly be celebrated for his chemistry with Buckley which was tangible even without the beautiful intimacy created by a range of technical designs such as lighting and shots. In an interview, Buckley and O’Connor discussed how the love of Juliet and her Romeo is much more impactful if it is not seen as naive. This comes across strikingly in their performances and the chemistry between them. These are two people that understand the gravity of their situation and yet cannot resist the monumental urge to love each other fearlessly, violently and ultimately destructively.
The adaption is incredibly fast-paced and never lingers; a temptation that comes inevitably from the medium of film. At times this feels to the detriment of the actors and the viewing experience, the rich speech is stripped back to an extent that it sometimes could be considered as sparse. Moments of stillness should never be relinquished in favour of fitting one of Shakespeare’s greatest into a neat hour and a half. The pacing was jarring only sometimes however, and was more an issue in that it felt like the lovers deserved better, which thematically is entirely appropriate to the play. It’s not new to believe Romeo and Juliet deserved better. However, the overall pacing was incredibly effective and I was afflicted by that celebrated feeling that a mere five minutes had passed by the end.
Despite cutting the majority of the iconic balcony scene, the ambience and immediacy created, paired with the magnetic connection between O’Connor and Buckley, still painted a vivid picture of their love. My main issue came with the loss of the majority of the comedy. Just as with the pacing, contrast is everything. In disregarding the lighter moments, (the Nurse was castrated in her comic capacity despite being in my humble opinion one of the funniest characters of Shakespeare,) the production lost the capability to make the tragedy even darker and more poignant.
There can be no dark without light. Fisayo Akinade’s Mercutio was both tender and confident and the decision to play down/blatantly ignore his continual innuendos could potentially be justified. Shakespeare would probably roll in his grave at the National Theatre stripping his work of dirty jokes. The man knew what he was doing.
Somewhat surprisingly, Shubham Saraf as Benvolio was a real standout. Often a nothing character relegated to a plot device or an audience for Romeo’s sorrow and Mercutio’s antics, Saraf was a continually compelling addition to the drama. The homosexual nature of his relationship with Mercutio felt like a somewhat hasty addition but added a welcome warmth and heightened the already considerable tragedy of Mercutio’s death. In giving a similar weight to all the characters, rather than focussing so stringently on the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Godwin creates a mosaic of grief that encompasses more than the relationship of two people.
There is a sense of intrinsic interconnectivity between the figures of the play that many adaptations do not achieve. Moreover, Tamsin Grieg as Lady Capulet was an electric presence throughout. Her measured cruelty felt powerfully cold and menacing. She kept the stakes high and the tension higher. As a collective, the cast brought an energy that transcended the barrier of the screen. A particularly powerful moment saw Juliet on the verge of taking the potion, surrounded by the actors as circled silhouettes. Far from encroaching on the intimacy of the moment, the blurred figures showed her helplessness and the true extent of her isolation.
My dismal scene I needs must act alone.
(Romeo and Juliet.IV.III.20)
The fact that this film was created at a time when the arts have been the most debilitated in recent history is an astonishing achievement. There is a nice circularity to the fact that most of Shakespeare’s genius is thought to have derived from a time in which the theatres were closed due to plague. However, this stands as truly excellent regardless of its context. It mainly speaks to a renewed appreciation of theatre’s capacity to incite emotion, to bring joy just as it brings tears, to bring people together. I hope the overall simplicity and sensitivity of the piece that was insisted upon by its context marks a change in British theatre post-pandemic. The rawness of the production was truly resonant. It did not strike me as a money-making consumer-driven ploy.
It felt honest. It felt true.
Image Credit: National Theatre/Sky UK