‘What’s in a name?’ Juliet, Romeo and Juliet (II.ii. 1-2), William Shakespeare
Well, as much as I sympathise with Juliet when she mourns her fate that the man she loves is the one man she should not love, a name can make all the difference. In this case, the name that made the difference was, of course, Kenneth Branagh.
On Friday night, I was privileged to be invited to go and see Kenneth Branagh’s recent production of Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre, London. It was a spur of the moment decision to go, and I am so glad we did. I had been planning to go and see it at the cinema, when the play was broadcast live, but was devastated to find out that I had a concert, and could not attend. So I was more than excited to get the chance to go up to London to see one of the greatest literary love stories.
My Mum, my next door neighbour and I took the opportunity to have a girls’ night out whilst the boys were doing a wine tasting and film evening and we had been banished from the house. We had a lovely pre-theatre dinner at the Boulevard Brasserie near Covent Garden and took our seats. We weren’t really sure what to expect, as the cast had faced unforeseen challenges at the beginning of the week, with both Richard Madden (Romeo) and his understudy, Tom Hanson, breaking their ankle and knee respectively, rendering them unable to perform. Luckily, Freddie Fox was able to take the role of Romeo, but had only been performing with the cast for 3 days.
Kenneth Branagh’s booming voice signalled the start of the performance. And what a performance it was! He had decided to set the play in 1950s Verona, with cast speaking stereotypical Italian in the background which really added to the credibility of the setting. Whilst the romance was the forefront of the directors’ focus, the smaller details amongst the ensemble gave the play undertones of the violence and fear present at the time, with appearances from Mafia-esque police and gangster-like shady figures.
The set and costumes were minimalist, with simple stone columns and white sheets with plain black and white costumes. This unconsciously allowed the colour of the play to come from the language and the action of the actors. Unfortunately, a floor level balcony led to a few baffling scenes where Romeo talks of climbing the high walls, gesturing to a wall half the size of his body, and he falls half a metre to the ground and has to kneel to show that he is beneath the balcony. However, on the whole the minimalism meant there was no risk of becoming distracted from the plot and passion, which added to the innocence and purity of the love of the star-crossed Romeo and Juliet. Neither was there risk of becoming distracted during the 20 minute interval, where a bell tolled to mark the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio.
Lily James and Freddie Fox were outstanding in their respective roles. James played the ever innocent, dreamlike, and consequently completely believable 14 year old, trapped between her love for her family’s enemy, and the sense of duty she felt she owed to them. The passion and ease with which she fell so deeply in love, contrasted with her fear and desperate pleas to both the Friar and her Nurse presented a vulnerable young girl whose tragic death was the only key to breaking the feud between the families.
It was impossible to have known that Fox had only joined the cast a few days earlier. He brought a life and energy to the role which, along with his boyish passion, brought the play back to a high intensity teenage love story that would capture even the coldest heart, an energy that was seemingly missing with Richard Madden as Romeo.Added to this, the comedic characterisation of Derek Jacobi as a camp dancing Mercutio and Meera Syal as Juliet’s Nurse highlighted some of the more light hearted moments in the Shakespearean tragedy.
With the clever minimalism of the set, and the flawless acting from the star-studded cast, this was definitely the best production of Romeo and Juliet I have seen. Kenneth Branagh’s direction enabled the true colours of the story to shine through, and suddenly the archaic language clicked into place. This is, undeniably, an example in how to do Shakespeare well (apart from the balcony ..!).