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