Romeo & Juliet review: A uniquely timely take on a timeless tragedy
Ivan Radford | On 04, Apr 2021
“Saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, and palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss,” says Juliet (Jessie Buckley) when she encounters Romeo (Josh O’Connor) at a party held by her family of Capulets. The pair’s hands hover near each other, and the handheld camera zooms in close on their fingers, the whole screen quivering with anticipation. It’s a moment that has an added frisson, as the National Theatre’s production of Romeo & Juliet takes place during a global pandemic in which physical contact has taken on a whole new significance. Watching now, the notion that two lovers from different households might dare to touch carries an unfamiliar thrill – and a pang of risk.
It’s impossible to divorce this production from the context in which it was made. Shakespeare’s tale of a forbidden, star-crossed romance between two young members of feuding families was all set to storm the National Theatre last year, headlined by two stars in their prime, but the coronavirus pandemic led to the whole thing being called off. Now, it arrives on our screen in a hybrid form that’s familiar to anyone who has delved into the world of digital theatre, but also fascinatingly different – where many productions have been filmed on stage in recent years, with the Old Vic Theatre’s ambitious lockdown stagings of small ensemble pieces particularly impressive, this innovative project whisks us behind the stage too, filming in corridors, hidden spaces and shadowy hallways. While the National Theatre sits unlit and dormant, this tale of love blazing amid gloomy tragedy brings a similar burst of hope and light to a darkened room.
Within this unique space, Tamsin Grieg plays Lady Capulet with a stern distance that defies our lead couple’s touchy-feely desire, Adrian Lester is a calm, imperious Prince, Deborah Findlay’s Nurse fans herself as she watches everything unfold, and the always-magnetic Lucian Msamati is at once wise, warm and ominous as the Friar. Among the uniformly impeccable cast, Fisayo Akinade steals scenes as a protective, loyal and openly gay Mercutio, which brings new tensions to his interactions with David Judge’s Tybalt.
At the heart of it all, Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are on electrifying form, both bringing a real sense of naivety and youthful urgency to their bond. They’re always on the move through this intimate maze of private and public chambers, chasing after each other, racing into one another’s arms with unleashed passion, rushing into unforeseen conflict with blinkered anger, rocking with pain over loss and misunderstandings.
Director Simon Godwin, who’s never made a film before, brings a similar vibrance to his work, with a tangible excitement at the possibilities the production’s format opens up. The Lyttelton stage flows from backstage rehearsal rooms to extravagantly costumed Verona streets, while the balcony scene closes the gulf between its lovers with a plain, old-fashioned ladder. The more detailed the set becomes, the more the world that Romeo and Juliet have built for themselves threatens to be torn apart, and the film uses some smart editing choices to echo their ill-fated love. At the end, flashbacks through their happiest moments brings home the heartfelt stakes afresh, while flashforwards during the extravagant Capulet ball jump from their hands touching to the two figures flirting and laughing through the theatre’s backstage in casual clothes – a literal undressing that puts their very human, everyday desire for love and connection centre-stage.
At only 95 minutes, the result is a deftly abridged adaptation of one of theatre’s most famous plays, a witty and creative presentation that gives timely resonance to Shakespeare’s timeless tale. An ode to the fleeting passion of young love, as well as the transient sparks that fly when a live audience briefly witnesses a play unfold, it’s a beautiful, poignant and bold celebration of physical and emotional connection – and achingly leaves you wondering what a longer, on-stage version would have been like.
Romeo & Juliet airs on Sky Arts (Freeview 11, Freesat 147) at 9pm on Sunday 4th April, 9.30pm on Monday 5th April and 10pm on Thursday 8th April. It is available on-demand for Sky customers until 3rd May 2021. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.