ROMEO AND JULIET, filmed live theater, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts,

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - (Game of Thrones), Abbey) La Dolce Vita. (Down­ton Cinderella). Side Story Story, West dolce vita West Side in­namorati Romeo and Juliet

This stage pro­duc­tion from the new Kenneth Branagh Theatre Com­pany comes to the screen in the now­fa­mil­iar West End Live for­mat, com­plete with a 20-minute in­ter­mis­sion. You also get a quar­ter-hour of warm-up, fea­tur­ing an over­head shot of the wait­ing au­di­ence in Lon­don’s beau­ti­ful Gar­rick Theatre, and in­ter­views with Lon­don teenagers ex­tem­po­riz­ing on love, what su­per­pow­ers they would like to have, and their im­pres­sions of Shake­speare’s ro­man­tic classic.

What sets this filmed live theater ex­pe­ri­ence apart is that it is shown in black and white. In a cur­tain speech in­tro, Branagh ex­plains this: He has cho­sen to set the ac­tion in the 1950s, and is pat­tern­ing the filmic look af­ter Fellini’s 1960 classic Sir Kenneth fur­ther ex­plains that Richard Mad­den

who plays Romeo, has re­cently in­jured his an­kle. But he was de­ter­mined to go on for this filmed evening, and so he does, while we find our­selves furtively watch­ing for a limp.

Shake­speare’s teenage lovers are played by two ac­tors who are at least a good decade se­nior to their char­ac­ters: Mad­den is thirty, Lily James

is twenty-seven (and the two starred to­gether un­der Branagh’s di­rec­tion in last year’s There’s noth­ing un­usual about cast­ing these kids older. Norma Shearer was thirty-four when she played Juliet in the 1934 movie ver­sion, and Les­lie Howard, a ripe old forty-three, was her Romeo. James does par­tic­u­larly well in oblit­er­at­ing the age gap. The years weigh more heav­ily on Mad­den.

The real age-in­dif­fer­ent cast­ing here is Sir Derek Ja­cobi, who at sev­enty-seven struts the stage as a grey­beard Mer­cu­tio. It’s a star­tling choice (one that Branagh also ex­plains in his speech) and a suc­cess that could spawn a whole act­ing sub­cul­ture of reimag­ined age re­la­tion­ships. Shake­speare doesn’t spec­ify an age for Mer­cu­tio, but Ja­cobi’s is an old dandy, a sort of Clifton Webb, dis­pens­ing wis­dom and acid wit to his youth­ful com­pan­ions. But he has no busi­ness en­gag­ing in a sword­fight. Nor, for that mat­ter, does any­one else. When

moved the ac­tion of the story to this pe­riod, switch­blades re­placed swords as the weapon of choice. But Branagh and co-di­rec­tor Rob Ash­ford leave in the sword­play, and it’s a head-scratcher in a of neck­ties, cap­puc­ci­nos, and café ta­bles.

Branagh and Ash­ford keep the ac­tion flow­ing briskly through Christo­pher Oram’s clean, sim­ple set, which changes mood and lo­ca­tion with squared stone col­umns that de­scend and rise to suit the oc­ca­sion. They’ve brought the fresh­ness of re-imag­i­na­tion to a lot of fa­mil­iar scenes, and while this isn’t

there are a few mu­si­cal num­bers, such as Juliet singing a song to her father at the ball be­fore Romeo ap­pears and takes her breath away. Per­haps the most un­usual take on a classic mo­ment is the ren­der­ing of the bal­cony scene as com­edy, with Juliet swig­ging wine from a bot­tle (they start them younger in Italy) and re­act­ing tipsily to Romeo’s ap­proach.

There is some ter­rific work in sup­port­ing roles. Top men­tion goes to Meera Syal as Juliet’s nurse, a bawdy, nur­tur­ing, con­niv­ing, lov­ing ally to her lit­tle lady bird. As Juliet’s mother Lady Ca­pulet, Marisa Beren­son gives a de­cent per­for­mance, but at six­ty­nine, she seems a lit­tle lifted of face to be a woman who com­putes in the script as not yet out of her twen­ties (“By my count, I was your mother much upon these years/That you are now a maid.”). But as her hus­band, the iras­ci­ble Lord Ca­pulet, Michael Rouse turns in a pow­er­house per­for­mance that may call to mind a young Ge­orge C. Scott. And Sa­muel Valen­tine is sweetly sym­pa­thetic as Friar Lau­rence. Jack Col­grave Hirst makes an ad­e­quate Ben­vo­lio. Ansu Kabia’s Ty­balt runs a lit­tle over­heated.

But it’s a play that sinks or swims on the per­sua­sive­ness of its pair of star-cross’d lovers. So much of the power and, yes, the com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity, of the mad doomed love of these Veronese depends on their youth, and frankly, Mad­den (es­pe­cially in close-up) ap­pears old enough to know bet­ter. He does con­vey the ’50s look of the set­ting, but he’s more James Dar­ren than James Dean. He plays Romeo skill­fully, but more in prose than po­etry. James, how­ever, is an in­fec­tious, ex­u­ber­ant Juliet, and she suc­ceeds in light­ing up the stage with her joy and dark­en­ing it with her grief. She does lo­cate both of these emo­tions in her belly, where she tends to twist her hands a lot when she’s worked up. But she is alive with en­ergy and youth­ful ro­mance.

De­spite its flaws, this is still Shake­speare, and it’s still Branagh, and it’s still live West End theater. You could do a lot worse.

Beware the in­ter­mis­sion, which fol­lows the duel scene. The cur­tain falls, and a dig­i­tal counter in the up­per left of the screen be­gins tick­ing off twenty, count ’em, min­utes. At the Gar­rick, you could go out for the in­ter­val drink you pre-or­dered at the bar.

— Jonathan Richards

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