Why Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet will take your breath away…

I tried not to read too much about the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s new Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick before seeing it. Having booked the tickets over a year in advance, fuelled by a love of the play but also a love of the pairing of Lily James and Richard Madden in the titular roles (I was a big fan of the two of them in Disney’s Cinderella, but am also an avid watcher of Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey), it seemed like it would never come round. The press photos were really exciting, revealing that it wouldn’t be in Elizabethan costume but also showing how passionate the star-crossed lovers we’re going to be. We studied the play at school, and for GCSE had to write an essay on it, picking the topic ourselves – I chose to declare my eternal love for Act 2 Scene 2, the famous balcony scene, the part I was most excited about seeing at the theatre. I’ve never seen it before on stage, so all I really had to go by was the Franco Zeffirelli film of 1968, Baz Lurhmann’s teenage favourite 1996 version and the recent 2013 movie starring Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld. It is never the same as seeing it on the stage though, and that was why I jumped at the chance to go.

 

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On the way to the theatre on a rainy Saturday night in London

 

Upon arrival at the theatre and purchasing a programme, it was revealed that Branagh had chosen to set his offering in 1950s Italy, taking inspiration from the sumptuous and passionate idea of La Dolce Vita. This worked perfectly and I think the placing of the story in a different time proves how timeless a tale it is; Shakespeare’s dialogue effortlessly glowed against the background of fifties costumes, café culture, passionate partying and fighting. Never once did it feel anachronistic, feeling more exciting as it was something different.

Lily James as Juliet was just perfect casting. Having seen her in War and Peace (the costume drama event of the year in my opinion – but that’s for another post!), Downton Abbey and Cinderella, she plays girlish enthusiasm and raw emotion so believably and beautifully that it was soon apparent her Juliet would sparkle. She also sang at the ball in which she meets Romeo, and this is the dramatic moment he falls in love with her, with Richard Madden’s handsome Romeo circling the party scene in awe as she captures the audience with her lovely voice, uttering the famous lines “Did my heart love til now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” Their chemistry was brilliant as they fell in love even further in the balcony scene, with Juliet swigging from a wine bottle as she mused to herself (or what she believed was just herself) on her balcony whilst Romeo hides behind a pillar listening to her ponder the significance of their family names. I loved the wine bottle element, suggesting Juliet was tipsy and carried away by the excitement of the party – further proving she was like most girls, at any period in history, excited by romance at a party.

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It was really interesting to see how stage directions, timing and tone of voice could actually bring out some of the comedy in the famously tragic play. At the beginning, when Kathryn Wilder’s Peter asked Romeo and Jack Colgrave Hurst’s Benvolio to help her read the note she has been handed by her masters the Capulets, small movements, teasing voices and longing looks made it so funny. The two comic stars of the play in my opinion were Derek Jacobi as Mercutio and Meera Syal as the nurse. Syal was bawdy, garrulous and caring, with frequent moments of getting hot under the collar in her encounters with dreamy Romeo on behalf of Juliet. Similarly, Jacobi played a brilliant Mercutio: having only ever seen versions in which Mercutio is cast as an age contemporary of Romeo and Benvolio, it was interesting and Jacobi further proved his immense Shakespeare credentials. He was so entertaining, a slightly tipsy dandy who interacted so well with Benvolio and Mercutio, with his speech about dreams and Queen Mab being a particular highlight. On the other hand, the comedy elements did not detract from the tragedy of the story, with both executing these perfectly.

The second half was so dramatic, a tragedy of mis-timing and undelivered messages. Juliet visibly ages as she is in torment over her parents’ plans for her to marry Count Paris, who appears devoted to her. She aches for Romeo who similarly does so for her; the final scene in the tomb was so electrifying, even though, as one of the most popular plays to be studied in English literature, the ending is well-known, the cast kept you clinging on in hope that this time the tragedy wouldn’t quite happen.

The cast and staging cannot be commended enough. It was the perfect experience of seeing my favourite Shakespeare play for the first time, and has made me not only want to revisit the other adaptations of the play, but also to watch La Dolce Vita and marvel at the glamorous but troubled era that served as the background to this wonderful production.

SEE IT FOR YOURSELF

  • Romeo and Juliet is on at the Garrick Theatre in London until 13th August 2016, so there is plenty of time to go and see it
  • If you don’t get chance to go and see it, Cineworld are putting on screenings of Branagh Theatre Live: Romeo and Juliet on the 7th July 2016 across the UK, so get booking those instead!
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