By rights, we should have seen Simon Godwin’s Romeo and Juliet at the National Theatre last summer but the stars realigned for these star-cross’d lovers and now we have the gift of the National’s first ever film. Emily Burns’ sleek adaptation has been reworked for the camera and with DP Tim Sidell reimagining the possibilities of working onstage, something truly cinematic yet innately theatrical has emerged.
With a supporting company (plucked from my dreams) that included Deborah Findlay, Lucian Msamati and Tamsin Greig, I was pleasantly surprised that the young leads lived up to their billing with two fine, emotionally wrought performances. Josh O’Connor’s Romeo carries the weight of the world on his shoulders but flickers beautifully into life upon the stolen touch of fingertips with Juliet. And Jessie Buckley as Juliet shimmers with luminosity with the intensity of the feelings that take her over.
The searching intimacy of the camera also has a magisterial effect on the psychological acuity of the play. Soutra Gilmour’s production design allows us to slip effortlessly betwixt the worlds of film and theatre – fully realised set here, rehearsal room there. And what might have been a necessity due to social distancing proves an absolute boon as tight close-ups offer us the kind of insight that you’d never get even from the front row of the Lyttelton, Buckley in particular drawing us so well into her maelstrom of emotion.
Findlay’s Nurse and Msamati’s Friar are as excellent as you’d ever want them to be but it is the tweaks elsewhere that tickle the fancy. Greig’s Lady Capulet is recast as the head of the household taking over Lord Capulet’s lines with a stunning iciness. And Mercutio and Benvolio are fully gayed up, allowing Fisayo Akinade and Shubham Saraf to play around with new nuances around those characters’ interactions in the play. Altogether, this is contemporary Shakespeare at its finest – a creative triumph for all concerned.
Romeo and Juliet is on 4th April at 9pm, 5th April at 9.30pm and 8th April at 10pm on Sky Arts. Sky Arts is free-to-air and available for everyone in the UK on Freeview channel 11. You can also watch it via NowTV. It will air on PBS in the US on 23rd April
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