I was quite thrilled but nervous last Friday night. Being in Canada, I wasn’t quite sure I would have access to the broadcast of the recently filmed version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that the National Theatre (one of my favorite theaters in the world) had put together under the weight of the pandemic. It sounded from the press release that outside of a few pre-determined countries, we, Canadians, might have to wait a bit for the production to become available here for streaming or viewing. But as luck (or a good cable subscription) would have it, I was anxious all for not, as I discovered quite easily that I could catch this dynamic pared down version of this classic on the PBS channel available to me.
Filmed completely on the Lyttelton stage (following, obviously, all the health guidelines that have been put in place) over seventeen (very busy) days, this wildly emotive presentation, flashing forward and back with a wise calculated a vengeance, made my heart ache for all that is lost within this deadly tragedy, and for all the loss we feel currently for not having live theatre available to us. The production broke my heart, surprisingly, as this is a tale told by many, over and over again, and although the star crossed story never ceases to amaze me in its sheer beauty and poetic genius, over the years, it has rarely found its way into my emotional heart. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but after numerous productions, regardless of their tactile beauty, the heartbreak sometimes stays a distant memory. But somewhere in this simplistic two-framed production, directed with an amazing clarity by Simon Godwin (NT’s Strange Interlude with Anne Marie Duff; followed by Man and Superman with Ralph Fiennes), the art and the pain stabbed itself deep and tugged at my sensibilities in a way that it hasn’t in, maybe, decades, and for that, I am eternally grateful to all involved, and to PBS for making it available for our consumption.
Originally, I am told, this modern-dress production was going to be staged as part of the National Theatre‘s regular theatrical season, but the pandemic had a different idea for this tale. So wisely and thoughtfully, Godwin and the National decided to not let this amazing opportunity fly away, but together they decided to find a way to reimagine this Shakespearean tragedy as a theatrical film. Played out on a bare stage, the team hoped to find within the construct, an honest and authentic vibration when they combined both mediums’ mindsets together. It was a gamble, I am sure, but parcelled out with little to no set or fanfare, the winning hand final product pays out in abundance. There, inside cinematographer Tim Sidell’s (2018’s “Two for Joy“) inventive eye, the creative team found all that is needed within, delivering forth a production that is tight, tense, and speedy, with a driven intensity that never wavers and falters. It finds ways of emotionally pulling you into its two parallel universes without too much flash or pretense, engaging in an unique energy that is compelling and swift.
The cast of fourteen actors wanders in, dressed as if arriving for rehearsal. This is how it begins, as they sit in a circle on the stage surrounded by all the props they could need for a dry run of the play. It starts up with those iconic first lines, and the energy sizzles. This is the essence of theatre and Shakespeare, taking me back to those electric moments when poetry and words slam head first into pain and heartfelt emotions, and the excitement in what may be hangs in the air like heavy smoke. They start in, and the swordplay with wooden sticks sets the action moving forward. The ensemble, first watching with a simple edge of intrigue, dig into the madness as a real knife is pulled. The crowd swarms around the players, and the danger escalates as the quarreling intensifies. The camera dives inside, feeding on the chaotic energy as the visuals push the play forward and outward like a collective punch to the gutt. We are now all in it, without question. And we are never given a moment to step out. But why would we want to.
The tightly wound reimagining is intent on maintaining its focus. Parallel universes only strengthen the undertones. Godwin and editor Nick Emerson have stripped the drama down, exposing the heart and blood with finesse. It flies itself forward and back, exposing all the elements of what did and will happen without a worry. The flashes, in and out, ignite the tension, and build on the dread that we all know. Without warning, intense sadness and fear came over me, even though we all know that no matter how much we’d like Romeo to have some patience in that one critical moment, or find a way to seek council with the Friar, the ending is a forgone conclusion, and we can only weep for the loss that is on the horizon.
Josh O’Connor, the well known actor who plays the troubled, brittle Prince Charles on The Crown, dives headfirst into a Romeo that is as complicated and engaging as one could hope for. He aches for the intense connection he unleashes inside himself and with his tender Juliet, played lovingly by Jessie Buckley (West End revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music). Their chemistry is sweet, dynamic, and stunningly believable, pushing that first kiss at the Capulets’ ball into something cinematically both intimate and grand. Something about the two, maybe because of the way their eyes smile at one another across the rehearsal room, drives the headstrong attachment forward with an urgency that is palpable. Stripped of so much surrounding textual chatter, the connection becomes more dangerous and intense with each meeting, making us fear for their emotional, yet immature, sanity. The two seem almost too eager to self inflict deadly wounds on themselves, forever trying unsuccessfully to balance love with a troubled desperation that is impossible to ignore. They are indeed in trouble, from that first impetuous kiss at the well crafted ball, but they speed forward, never looking long enough around them to take a breath, or avoid the crash that waits for them around the next corner.
The play has been described by Godwin as a plot that balances destiny on the edge of disease. He states that the crucial delivery of that one particular message is delayed because of a quarantined town, with the outcome of that diseased hurdle being tragedy. It’s a construction that we can all embrace knowingly, as the production lets the pandemic sneak into the drama with a subtle power. Broadcasted as part of PBS‘s Great Performances, the production finds emotional engagement at almost every turn, especially in the unexpected, unscripted sexual tenderness between Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) and Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade), fumbling around in the alleyway to find the same fire that exists inside the titular characters’ hearts. To be surprised is a welcome addition with any Shakespeare, but to find myself fully invested inside every high-angled close-up or wide angled vision is just a joy to behold. It made my heart bleed for inner patience on Romeo’s banished part, pleading inside my soul for him to take pause for one more minute for an overall different outcome. Ridiculous, I know. With tears flowing down my face, I watched torturous love and separation play out its deadly, heartless game. The beautiful film has a luminous tender energy that creeps in and connects, especially during these days of pandemic seclusion.
The sharp ninety-minute production isn’t worried about the world as much as it is about sexual energy and the ideas of love and electricity. Deborah Findlay’s (MTC’s The Children) delicious portrayal of the Nurse finds connection and intimacy easily and wisely, while Tamsin Grieg (NT’s Twelfth Night) defiantly adds a steely frost to her Lady Capulet that works (although I must admit I will never forget Diane Venora’s magnificent and battered turn at the same part in Baz Luhrmann’s epic film version, “Romeo + Juliet“, her damaged portrayal will live on in my soul forever). The only melting for Grieg’s Lady is when she tells her kinsman Tybalt, strongly portrayed by David Judge (ITV’s “The Bill“), to stand down. It has an erotic edge that coats much of this production. But speaking of Luhrmann’s film, Claire Danes turn on Juliet, Pete Postlethwaite’s Father Laurence, Mariam Margolyes’ Nurse, Brian Dennehy’s Montague, Paul Sorvino’s Capulet, and Paul Rudd’s Paris, still easily hold their own in my memory (God, the cast of that 1996 film was amazing) and I must admit it will take a lot to shake it out. O’Connor’s work though, easily accomplishes just that.
Unlike that starry, overly-produced film (that I love), this Romeo and Juliet finds their pure authenticity in its less showy forms and formulas, deepening the connection without all those high voltage gimmicks and excesses of which that Luhrmann film happily embraced. The National Theatre production runs fast and furious, though, pushing the tragedy forward at an epic speed, shedding of all Shakespeare’s side talk with a wise grace. Their focus is on the wild-ride drive and passion that is on fire within these two magnificent performances, as they fling themselves forward and backwards through parallel universes of passion and intent. The structural balance sits perfectly inside the theatrically staged space, making this 500-year-old play sizzle with an achingly sad energy that made it impossible to look away from or not feel in your very bones. For a play that I’ve seen countless times ove, this Romeo and Juliet, courtesy of London’s National Theatre, has delivered a gorgeous filming that is worthy of my continued devotion and extreme love.
Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet will be on PBS starting Friday, April 23.
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