Romeo & Juliet: a production for our times

The NT has been busy since lockdown over a year ago now. First they streamed one of their archived shows weekly, for free; then they opened briefly to allow just a few people in to see an audience-distanced production of Death of England: Delroy, in a reconfigured Olivier Theatre – the final performance of which they hastily filmed and streamed when we locked down for a second time. Then again they opened up briefly, with Dick Whittington, which again was hastily filmed and streamed when lockdown three arrived.

Now we have a brand new production of Romeo and Juliet, filmed during lockdown on stage over seventeen days in an empty Lyttelton Theatre and transmitted in the UK on Sky Arts last Sunday.

R & J is a notoriously difficult play. Two young people meet at a masked ball, fall in love at first sight (still masked), meet briefly on Juliet’s balcony, get married, spend one night together and – spoiler alert – kill themselves.

Jessie Buckley, Lucian Msamati & Josh O’Connor (NT website)

One of the problems is casting. Romeo and Juliet were very young, but very young actors don’t always have the depth of experience to make such a preposterous story believable. Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are not that young, and they have a wealth of experience between them. The result is miraculous. There is something so raw, so inevitable about their love for one another. It’s a long time since I’ve felt so moved by the play and so absorbed in its tragic inevitability. This was largely thanks to the central performances, and to those around them. Tamsin Grieg as Lady Capulet is given much of Lord Capulet’s speeches, making her the dominant – and icy cold – member of that family. Her subsequent grief at the death of her daughter is utterly heart-breaking. Deborah Findlay is a warm and flustered nurse whose divided loyalties are sharply accentuated. Mercutio and Benvolio are apparently an item. Lucian Msamati doubles as the Prologue and an emotionally conflicted Friar Lawrence.  Adrian Lester is an authoritative and angry Prince of Verona, even in a t shirt.

The production, heavily edited and directed by Simon Godwin, plays with its surroundings. First we are in rehearsal, on stage and backstage, then we are in Juliet’s bedroom or the Capulet’s living room. Juliet runs through empty rooms with huge doors. The iron safety curtain plays a major role, which traps the Friar and under which Mercutio and his friends crawl to escape their enemies. Romeo and Juliet play tag around a trolley containing stage props. (I believe I’ve seen this trolley on backstage tours.)  Towards the end we are back in rehearsal again, reminding us that this is very much a Romeo and Juliet in times of Covid.  

Fisayo Akinade (Mercutio) and Shubham Saraf (Benvolio) (nationaltheatre.org.uk)

To quote from the website: ‘Romeo & Juliet  premiered at 9pm on Sunday 4 April and will be repeated on Sky Arts on Thursday 8 April at 10pm. It is also available to watch online any time with a NOW TV entertainment pass or Sky subscription.’

It is showing in the US on PBS on 23 April (coincidentally – or not – Shakespeare’s birthday).

DON’T MISS IT.

Patsy Trench
April 2021