Romeo & Juliet (National Theatre 2021)

Photo credit: Rob Youngson

“For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.”

The summer of 2020 was originally due to bring lovestruck Verona to London’s theatres but, following closures across the world over the past year, it appears that 2021 will do just fine. Rather than postpone their stage run, the National Theatre took the decision to make their adaptation of Romeo & Juliet (starring Josh O’Connor & Jessie Buckley) for the screen instead, setting aside 17 days to film in and around the building, mid-pandemic. Unlike the recent digital production (Romeo & Juliet 2021), which was also created during the height of the pandemic, this one reaps the benefits of everyone in the cast being together in the same building rather than filming their parts separately; it immediately feels real & present – it’s full of energy.

The film starts with everyone entering the building in plain clothes and beginning the play sat in a circle backstage; the prologue has the feel of a company meeting, the actors being briefed (by Lucian Msamati) about the way things will play out rather than addressing the audience directly. Things continue in this vein until the time comes for the Capulet ball, when events move onto the stage and it starts to resemble more of a full theatrical production – snazzy costumes & props, blaring music, and a lighting change up the ante and bring us into the world of the Montagues & Capulets (Soutra Gilmour’s design roots it in the present day, with hints at their glamorous lives). This approach radiates a love of theatre and the whole process of putting on a play, making this film a dual love story. I’m not completely sold on the occasional flipping back to plain clothes footage once this line has been crossed (it doesn’t seem to serve any useful purpose); I’d rather they waited until very near the end to go back to this look, as it creates a clear beginning, middle & end – finishing things as they began, the actors being debriefed by the Prince with the final speech.

Romeo & Juliet is as much about fate as it is about love (probably more so, actually), so it was great that director Simon Godwin decided to make use of the medium of film to show some flashforwards early on (to show what was destined to happen) and flashbacks later (to hammer home the inevitability of these events). Overlapping the fights between Mercutio, Tybalt & Romeo with Juliet whiling away the hours before her wedding night is a masterstroke, and an approach that I’ve only previously seen in this play when Daniel Kramer blew Shakespeare’s Globe apart with his take in 2017. It shows just how fine the line is between love & hate, the contrast between the emotions on display emphasising how dangerous the situation is when those two families are involved.

Huge credit should go to Kate Waters for her fight direction; the clash between Mercutio & Tybalt can sometimes be a bit underwhelming, but her knack for creating dynamic & realistic stage combat has paid off here – with props also to Fisayo Akinade, David Judge, Shubham Saraf & Josh O’Connor for bringing it to life. There is a stark contrast between this fight and Romeo’s with Tybalt (following Mercutio’s death), which is more akin to a cold-blooded execution. To me, this is a well-considered match with Romeo’s character: though he blames it on his relationship with Juliet (“Thy beauty hath made me effeminate”), he’s never previously got involved in the fighting and clearly is just pushed over the edge by losing his friend.

Emily Burns’ adaptation is perhaps a little too condensed (had it been onstage I presume it would have been longer); though it makes it a more attractive prospect for anyone who wouldn’t necessarily want to commit too much time to a Shakespeare play, it does mean that occasionally things aren’t able to settle. Whilst its fast paced nature does hint at the volatility of the situation & slightly justify why events play out as they do, there’s no harm in slowing things down and allowing information to permeate the characters’ consciousness – for example, in Act 3 Scene 2 the nurse’s incoherent ramblings should lead Juliet to think that Romeo has been killed, before she eventually discovers the truth. Moments like this add to the drama and continue to develop the characters.

When I saw the initial casting I was concerned that Tamsin Greig would be a bit wasted as Lady Capulet, but I was thrilled to realise that things had been switched up to make Lady Capulet the head of the family. It suits Greig to a tee, and also makes the treatment of Juliet in the wake of Tybalt’s death differently devastating; her method of intimidation is based on a cold & quiet authority rather than being physically aggressive, which clearly strikes fear into all around her. It also makes Juliet’s desperate actions far more understandable – she clearly doesn’t think her mother will ever be persuaded to see her point of view.

I saw a comment from someone who said that O’Connor & Buckley don’t look young enough, as the titular couple are supposed to be teenagers – though when I pointed out that technically the play pairs a 13 year old girl with a 17-21 year old man, they thought this was sick. It doesn’t actually matter about the outward appearance of the actors, as what is really needed is youthful spirit – something that Buckley & O’Connor have in spades (not that they look or are especially old anyway). Not to mention the terrific chemistry between the pair, which is the glue that holds this love story together. Buckley, in particular, is very impressive and left me in tears when Juliet realises that the plan has gone fatally wrong, causing her to take drastic action.

On the whole I think it does a great job of combining theatre with film, and showing true passion for each medium. It could have been more adventurous, as there’s incredible scope for a story as famous as Romeo & Juliet – next time give me the Mercutio & Benvolio spin-off that this version teases!

Photo credit: Rob Youngson

My verdict? A film that radiates a love of theatre, embracing the change in circumstances to keep creativity alive – Jessie Buckley is particularly impressive throughout.

Rating: 4*

Romeo & Juliet was first shown on 4 April 2021 (Sky Arts) – it is available to watch until 4 May 2021.

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