With the closing of entertainment venues due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the longing for theatre productions and performances has never been so strong. Simon Godwin’s Romeo & Juliet was due to perform in July 2020, as noted at the beginning of the television film, but due to the pandemic the run was cancelled. This alternative, filmed over 17 days with regular COVID-19 testing, bridges the gap between theatre and screen with its unique approach. It’s not second best, nor a mere alternative—it’s a stand-out work of art it its own right, regardless if it was a second option.
National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet is an enthralling production, beautifully encapsulating the spirit of the original play while modernising elements of its script. It doesn’t lose the poignancy of the tale we all know well, instead adding to the tragedy of star-crossed lovers whose relationship is plagued by the tensions tearing families apart.
The inevitable failure of the central relationship is portrayed with precise desperation by the stand-out stars of the piece—Jessie Buckley as Juliet and Josh O’Connor as Romeo—against the tight setting of the Lyttelton stage. In fact, the theatrical setting itself truly embodies the building desperation of the two lovers: we begin in a rehearsal setting, before the surroundings become more elaborate and developed as the play and tension rises. The characters’ costumes are initially plain, only to become more elaborate in the masquerade ball and stunning wedding scene filled with candles, only for the tragedy to end with the actors plain-clothed in that rehearsal setting again. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Godwin’s adaptation is its use of setting, with the interior and exterior of both the characters and backdrop emphasising the tragedy facing the young lovers.
The decision to shoot the play in the theatre, and using every inch of it, encapsulates this tension all the more. It’s a perfect blending of stage and screen, beautifully captured by director of photography Tim Sidwell. The decision to shoot the film inside of a theatre, using its entire space, emphasises theatre’s endless usability and power—a poignant celebration considering the concerns for an industry that is on its knees due to the pandemic. The closed setting feels personal: our lives have been spent in closed spaces for this past year, with our only releases being the sights we see on our television screens and daily walks. As the love blooms tragically between the eponymous characters in a suffocating environment, it feels like the pandemic personified. It overwhelmed me more than I thought it would.
What’s more, the casting and other modernisations are evidence that Shakespeare is still so incredibly important in contemporary society. In fact, relationships are explored in further detail in this version that the original would allow. As Romeo and Juliet kiss at their wedding, the scene cuts to Mercutio and Benvolio at the iron border within the theatre as they share a kiss also. It’s a directorial decision that does not go amiss. Throughout the play, masculinity is explored most notably between these two characters as homoerotic tension is released in brilliantly choreographed fight scenes. The staging of their kiss by the iron border that separates the stage from the audience personifies the secrecy of their relationship from the outside world.
The decision to modernise the play does not stop here, with the gender-blind casting and merging of Lady Capulet’s lines with Lord Capulet’s, in a role played by Tamsin Greig. Greig’s portrayal is a stand-out performance in a spectacular cast. As a matriarchal figure with a status and power rivalling that of the Prince, her coldness contrasts with that of the Nurse (Deborah Findley), adding a depth to the characters’ relationships with one another in a tight space. We get to know the play more than ever before.
In fact, Greig’s portrayal as Lady Capulet proves her standing as one of the best Shakespeare actresses of our time (her previous credits include Malvolia in Twelfth Night and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing). Her refined portrayal is just as powerful and captivating as that of Buckley’s Juliet and O’Connor’s’ Romeo. The chemistry and longing between the two is spectacular. Buckley’s Juliet is such a fragile figure against her dominating mother, while O’Connor’s Romeo possesses a frail masculinity in contrast to the hegemonic masculinity perpetrated by David Judge’s Tybalt.
National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet establishes what we know already: that Shakespeare is timeless, and his explorations of love, estrangement and longing—no matter how many adaptations are made—will always be enthralling.
Words by Aoifke Madeleine
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