Faint heart never won fair lady, so it is only right that under the direction of Simon Goodwin, the National Theatre, following in the wake of Zeffirelli’s 1968 tour de force and Luhrmann’s wonderful 1996 translation, have boldly reimagined Shakespeare’s classic tale of love to serve up a Romeo & Juliet fit for the 21st Century.
Filmed over seventeen days in an empty Lyttelton Theatre, the contrast between scene and unseen spaces offers the perfect parallel for a play which whilst on the surface is a love story, at its heart is riddled with tension, twists, and turns.
The Prince (an assured Adrian Lester) provides the authoritative voice of calm and reason after Tybalt (David Judge) and Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) clash before the respective heads of their families, Lord and Lady Capulet (Lloyd Hutchinson and Tamsin Greig) and Lord Montague (Colin Tierney), are summoned.
Much is afoot in both camps as the ardent Romeo (Josh O’Connor) swoons over unrequited love whilst the Nurse (Deborah Findlay) warms Juliet (Jessie Buckley) to the intentions of a suitor, Paris (Alex Mugnaioni).
The heady mix of human desire comes to a head at the masked ball following which – lest nature be left to run its own course – only the injection of holy possibility from Friar Laurence (Lucian Msamati) can make any sense of it at all.
Whilst Emily Burns has chosen to place the emphasis of her adaptation on the love story, which is strongly delivered by the two leads, less attention has been paid to the accompanying sub plots which is a shame.
Fisayo Akinade’s Mercutio delivers an eloquent Queen Mab speech yet other than a wanton kiss, which is not meaningfully explained, it misses the hot headedness that should ultimately play out in his tirade with Judge’s troublesome Tybalt, whose cat-like nature is similarly never really explored.
A role reversal has been introduced between Lord and lady Capulet which whilst an interesting idea, panders more to current social mores and again is not fully considered. As a result, we lose the opportunity to examine two particularly prescient themes: that of the unhappy analogy between a mother and daughter’s forced marriages; and the underlying tone of domestic abuse in Lord Capulet’s character that an actor of Hutchinson’s ability would revel in bringing to the fore.
Msamati provides a masterclass as Friar Laurence – he doesn’t even need the words – yet we are denied the chance to see his own conscience unravel as his unanswered prayers come home to haunt him.
The design by Soutra Gilmour and director of photography Tim Sidell focuses on the emptiness of the backstage space, with light and darkness cleverly playing off the original language whilst the use of shadow reinforces that this is more than a black and white situation; the occasional glimpses of colour – often through flowers – hints at the natural path of life that should perhaps have been followed. There is a subtle musical accompaniment from Michael Bruce, but it is often the silences that prove deafening.
All the cast perform strongly with able support from Ella Dacres and Ellis Howard. O’Connor injects much needed backbone into his character making this Romeo truly his own, and I enjoyed it all the more for that. Buckley’s sensitive and emotional portrayal of Juliet beautifully balances innocence and guile, providing a timely reminder as to what a fine actress she is. The emotion of their final scene really moved me.
Presented by Sky Arts, PBS, and No Guarantees, the National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet is premiering at 9pm Sunday 4th April on Sky Arts (UK) and 9pm Friday 23rd April on PBS (US).
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 4th April 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★