‘Romeo and Juliet,’ William Shakespeare’s tragic tale of forbidden love, reunites Lily James and Richard Madden to face a more bitter fate than in their 2015 Cinderella fairytale, for Kenneth Branagh’s penultimate production in his season at the Garrick.
Oozing style and class, Branagh and Rob Ashford, bring forth this adaptation to a befitting 1950’s Verona – a country still suffering the repercussions of war as families strive to build a more secure future. Waiters serve espressos to the dapperly besuited gents and to the women in fashionable polka-dot dresses. The scattered callings of ‘ciao’ and intermittent Italian gabble, married with Christopher Oram’s tall marbled pillars and Howard Hudson’s lighting design, set a convincing scene: you can almost feel the Mediterranean sun on your neck and smell the coffee as it wafts across the piazza. The sense of impending doom, however, is never too distant as the piece is draped only in shades of white, black and grey; doleful chiming of church bells together with sporadic funereal chants reinforce approaching tragedy as we watch the the star-crossed lovers (spoiler alert!) meet their fateful ruin.
“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo” had new meaning as, due to an ankle injury, Richard Madden was absented and, as a result, an obvious whiff of disappointment drifted throughout the auditorium. As a Game of Thrones fan, I wanted nothing more than to witness The King in the North’s reincarnation as a love-sick Romeo. Whilst I can empathise with the disappointment caused when a star name is indisposed, we do have a tendency to render celebrities as something more than human when they are, in fact, simply that. Sometimes, they catch colds – just like us folk. And, sometimes, they get injured.
Tom Hanson, usually the production’s Paris, is a conversational Romeo and brings a lad-like quality to the character. Opposite him is Lily James (Downton Abbey), a sincere Juliet, offering more than a giddy love-struck teenager, but a relatable young girl who, once uninterested in the idea of romance, becomes beguiled by the mere sighting of Romeo. There is a lack of chemistry between James and Hanson – I wanted to return home full of sighs and sentiment from the lovers’ ravishment of one another, but I didn’t feel this strong connection. Despite this, the infamous balcony scene is playful and cleverly directed, as Juliet swigs from a bottle of champagne, drunk on bubbles and from the new sentiments awakened within. This scene is full of the awkward subtexts and flirtatious imperfections that come with new romantic meetings. Perhaps the original idea that a young couple could be so besotted with one another after their first meeting could now seem a little implausible, so this, for me, is an intelligent choice and relevant to a contemporary audience. This Romeo and Juliet are not gushy and are more than the Innamorati of Commedia Dell’arte. They are (James especially) sincere and relatable versions of two sweethearts.
And then there is Sir Derek Jacobi as Mercutio, who is entrancing and beautifully eloquent, his Queen Mab speech delectably imaginative – the Shakespearean language so natural, it could be his mother tongue. I paid no heed to the age difference between Mercutio and his younger companions as he could easily be an older relative – a reckless (and at times camp) uncle, perhaps. Jacobi, for me, is the highlight, with his remarkable wit and threads of sarcasm which are cleverly woven into his speech. His Mercutio is nonchalant and approaches his dual with Ansu Kabia’s Tybalt with a sense of playful innocuousness, which makes his death all the more poignant – more so than the death of the lovers. Derek Jacobi, a man who could make the alphabet exciting, possesses the stage with his very presence and is noticeably missed in the second half.
William Shakespeare’s versatile texts are play-dough, willing to be moulded into new formations. For me, Branagh and Ashford’s version is deliciously stylish and fashionably sophisticated. Shakespeare is challenging for both actor and audience with its wandering poetic dialogue, and there are moments where the text is delivered with broken sentiment. However, this is forgiven due to the likes of James as an anxious Juliet, fearful of her poisoned fate and the witticisms of Meera Syal’s (almost menopausal) nurse. It is worth the investment in a ticket, and I would happily return purely for Jacobi and to visit classy 1950‘s Verona once again, however draped in doom.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ plays at the Garrick Theatre until 13 August 2016.