Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford
Continues at the Garrick Theatre, Chaing Cross Road,
*** (out of five)
Kenneth Branagh directs an interesting and somewhat idiosyncratic Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre in London.
Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford set the play in 1950’s Verona and make considerable efforts to give it a distinctly Italian flavour. There is a good dose of Italian spoken and an attempt is made to give the play an Italian emotional wavelength.
The balcony scene.Lily James as Juliet and Richard Madden as Romeo.
Photograph: Johan Persson
Richard Madden as Romeo is an Italian stud, tall, athletic and a man about town. Lily James was indisposed the day I saw the production and Juliet was played by her understudy Kathryn Wilder. She is a tall, self-assured woman and not at all like the thirteen-year old that the text speaks of. She does a very good job in the role.
Branagh is not interested in presenting Juliet as a vulnerable waif. During the party at her house when she meets Romeo, she takes the microphone and sings for the guests. According to the text, when she meets Romeo and he wants to kiss her, she agrees not to move while their lips meet. In Branagh’s version, she throws her arms around his neck.
Branagh makes numerous changes to text and approach. Some of the servants are played by women causing some creakiness but nothing serious. The servant Peter (Zoe Rainey) wearing a nice dress is sent out to invite the guests to the party and we are to believe that (s)he is illiterate. Pushing it a bit and not getting too many laughs despite some boorish behaviour by Romeo’s friends.
Photo: Johan Persson
The dirty-minded Nurse, always a delightful character, is played with pizazz by Meera Syal. She is quite a woman and does not hesitate to shake her hips suggestively to Friar Laurence. Samuel Valentine as the Friar is straight and decent as becomes his calling.
Romeo’s friends are usually close to his age but it seems that Derek Jacobi was available and Branagh grabbed him for the role of Mercutio. Jacobi may not be able to handle a street brawl and he is quickly killed but no one can argue with his ability to handle Shakespeare’s lines with finesse and precision.
The costumes by Christopher Oram are high society Verona in the 1950’s, I assume. Tuxedoes for the men, stylish dresses for the women. The set by Oram is dominated by a series of pillars which can be rearranged as needed. The impression is monumental without being overwhelming.
The famous balcony is only three steps above stage level and any ideas about Romeo scaling walls quickly vanish. The scene after Romeo and Juliet have consummated their marriage vows becomes another balcony scene where they appear and discuss the time of day. A bed rolled on the stage would be far more effective.
At the end of the play the distraught Romeo looks at his “dead” wife and thinks that Death keeps Juliet beautiful because he wants her for his mistress. “Ah, dear Juliet,/Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe /That unsubstantial death is amorous, / And …. Keeps / Thee here in dark to be his paramour?” he says. I find these some of the most moving words in Shakespeare. I am not sure that editing them out is the best way to handle the scene.
A worthy production in many ways and a personal view of the play but Branagh comes perilously close to directorial self-indulgence at the expense of the text instead of in enhancement of it.
At the Garrick theatre, London, until 13 August, 2016.