A young woman and man run down a street holding hands

April 5, 2021, by Peter Kirwan

Romeo and Juliet (National Theatre) @ Sky Arts

A group of actors gather in a rehearsal room, chatting and laughing; we cut to them sat in chairs, making up three sides of a large square. It looks like meet-and-greet day, only there’s no director, no box set to show. Instead, it’s one of the actors, Lucian Msamati, who speaks, and he’s speaking the Prologue. As this group of actors sit facing one another and nod along to what, in Msmati’s mouth, has become a manifesto for what they are here to do, a young man and woman catch one another’s eyes from opposite sides and smile. The collaboration begins from a point of togetherness, from the creative energy of actors coming together to make something on (what is presented as being) their own terms, and even in this first speech, the alchemy has begun.

Simon Godwin’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the National was just going into rehearsals when the pandemic hit, and choosing to begin his film reimagining with the actors gathering together is a nostalgic call-back to a time when such an activity was normal. But it’s also key to the formal and interpretive innovations of this intelligent and moving production. The ability to be together, to touch others, to respond physically in real time and space to one another, is no longer the unthinking pre-condition of theatre, and so thus here becomes motivation and desire. Romeo and Juliet’s journey from separation to intimacy to separation again is also the journey of theatre-making itself, and the fast, dynamic explosion of their brief love in the play here becomes both metaphor for and consequence of the brief coming together of this group of theatre-makers over a couple of weeks as they work to create something before going their separate ways.

While the National and the RSC have plenty of form in converting their stage productions to studio-based television versions (a history best told by John Wyver’s Screening the Royal Shakespeare Company), those films have most normally been conversions of an existing theatrical production into film. Here, with film as the only outlet, Godwin and his team have created their own distinctive grammar to make the most of their situation. It plays as a dynamic film, privileging visual storytelling through fast editing, montage, intimate camerawork and a fluid approach to space, all of which speed up the narrative to allow this Romeo and Juliet to reach its conclusions within a breathless ninety minutes. But in beginning with the actors in rehearsal, Godwin simultaneously privileges the liveness of actors performing in real time, the spatial relationships between bodies in a shared space, as what makes meaning. It’s a triumph of mixed media that feels uncompromised, working splendidly as a film but reminding its audience just what the theatre can do.

The ensemble’s collective energy is key to the opening fight, which begins with playfulness as Ellis Howard’s scouse Sampson tussles half-jokingly with David Judge’s Tybalt as the actors start moving around the room. The sudden escalation of the fight as Shubham Saraf’s Benvolio joins the fray interestingly makes Benvolio the one who swings out most violently, even if Tybalt is the one driving the playful-serious aggression. But then the fight gets vicious, Benvolio getting on top of Tybalt and a knife being pulled, to the shocked cries of the actors around; it’s left to Adrian Lester, both the Prince but also one of the most senior actors present, to jump in and tear them apart. The scene’s location in a rehearsal room cleverly sets up the doubled mode of viewing required of viewers, in which we see both the political dynamics of this Verona and the partly controlled, partly unpredictable tensions of the process of creation. Godwin’s camera is right in the thick of it, too, and the choice to keep the camera so close to actors throughout rather than repeatedly returning to wide shots paradoxically feels again both theatrical and filmic; both creating the illusion of a fuller environment by occluding the surroundings, but also honing in precisely on the point of energy in any given interaction.

Across the course of the film, the external world of the play begins asserting itself in more and more definition. The first time we are introduced to Jessie Buckley’s Juliet, she is sitting on a bed open to the studio, the frame of a door a little way away. As she sits waiting for Romeo to come to her, however, walls and detail have appeared, closing Juliet increasingly within her own private space, delimited within the house. By the time she is choosing to take the sleeping potion, the house is complex and has hallways that, in a nightmarish sequence, she careens down, looking for the exit. The sense of the walls closing in on Juliet, of the entrapment and loneliness that weighs more heavily on her even as the hope of her potential freedom with Romeo becomes clearer, is profound.  More so than many productions, Juliet’s inner life feels fully realised here. She’s an isolated figure, rarely leaving the space of her own bed, and seems to almost need coaxing into the social life of the house; alone within her four walls, she enters into her richest life. One of the production’s most powerful moments comes as she suddenly reaches out for the Nurse at the point of taking the potion but finds herself alone in the house; she finally, voluntarily leaves the house and wanders through the backstage areas of the theatre before finding a more theatrical representation of her bed, her safe space, standing isolated in a black room surrounded by the other actors. She acknowledges them in her soliloquy, taking the potion in a space of her own, before the Nurse find her back in the more realised environment of the Capulets’ house.

The slippage between defined and undefined spaces maps roughly onto controlled and uncontrolled spaces. The fine detail of the Capulets’ house is an extension of Lady Capulet’s authoritarian management. Fascinatingly, Capulet himself (Lloyd Hutchinson) barely registers as a presence, to the point that it looks like he’s been cut entirely from the play. This Irishman eventually appears, a quiet voice and relatively benign towards his daughter (also Irish, creating a specific connection between the two), but almost entirely silenced except when he is needed to help confirm arrangements (that the confirmation of Paris’s engagement to Juliet takes place next to Tybalt’s open casket neatly aligns marriage and death). Instead, this is Lady Capulet’s domain. Tamsin Greig lets the disarming gentleness and frankness of her comic roles act as misdirection early on as she builds a friendly relationship with her daughter and with Paris, but there’s a steeliness when she restrains Tybalt at the party, or when she demands Romeo’s blood, that implies something colder. And when she tells Juliet that she will marry Paris, the gloves come off. Lady Capulet is untouchable, unmoved, and it is Juliet who bursts out with furious rage first, railing against the constraining presence of her mother that is mapped onto the set. It is only then that the real nastiness of this Lady Capulet comes out, as she finally snaps back and makes clear that there will be no questioning of her authority.

Friar Laurence (Msamati) similarly gets a more defined space, anchored to a table of medicines and accoutrements in a black cell. Like Lady Capulet, the Friar is interested in control, and there is a reassuring stability to the locus established by his worktable and his calm, learned tone. As Juliet lashes out against her mother’s immovable stoicism, so too does Josh O’Connor’s Romeo lash out against himself in the Friar’s presence, holding a knife to his own throat as he threatens to kill himself. To a certain extent, it’s possible to read Romeo and Juliet’s emotional outbursts as both prompted and enabled by the relative safety of these authority figures; they’re testing their boundaries, pushing to see what happens, but also in some ways wanting to be comforted.

But it’s in the more liminal spaces that the chaos takes place. Where Juliet is anchored to a fixed point that seems to be generating more walls and solidity, Romeo and his friends move freely in the interstitial spaces of the theatre, often framed against the back of theatrical flats, or – as when waiting to enter the Capulets’ party – sliding under a rising scene dock door. It’s in the narrow space between theatre wall and flats that the pivotal fight sequence plays out, an ungainly tussle in a confined area that leaves Mercutio stabbed with barely any idea of what has happened, and as the rest of the cast gather in this liminal space, outside of the rules of stage or real life, the Prince’s ability to control the situation feels limited. Romeo’s murder of Tybalt is particularly fascinating, with Romeo rising slowly and inexorably to the balcony position that Tybalt has taken up, barely pausing as he rises his arm and stabs Tybalt with a theatrical inevitability, cold and deliberate.

The film’s use of cutaways and juxtaposition complicates and at the same time unifies the relationship between actions that take place in defined and undefined space. The fight sequence is interspersed with Juliet waiting for Romeo, slowing down the momentum of the fight to allow Juliet’s expressions of desire to clash ironically with the actions that will ultimately keep her lover from her. Romeo and Juliet’s own marriage, surrounded by candles which are stunningly photographed, is juxtaposed with Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade) and Benvolio kissing passionately in the theatrical space, the two couples sharing the ecstasy of consummated love and setting up the stakes for what is about to be torn away from them. And going back to Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, in which Romeo locks eyes with Juliet across an underground rave – Juliet, the seeming introvert, is here masked and vocalising into a microphone – the two’s meeting and dancing and touching in the party is interspersed with the same pair, back in everyday clothes, alone and chasing one another joyfully and playfully around the rehearsal space. The use of montage in all of these instances collapses time and space to set up emotional connections, with neither ‘Verona’ nor the Lyttleton theatre big enough to contain these transcendent moments.

In casting O’Connor and Buckley, the production wisely chose actors who have demonstrable form in conveying subtle in film. Quite frankly, the chemistry between this awkwardly posh, slightly repressed Romeo, and this insular, offbeat Juliet, is electric. Left alone in a dimly lit stage, with Juliet sitting on a stage balcony talking aloud to herself, their balcony scene is kind, smiling, intimate, Romeo grabbing a ladder and bringing it over straightaway so that they can be near one another. The time taken developing their relationship physically pays off, and their sex scene (reminiscent of Normal People) is tasteful and character-driven, not least because the full-bodied intimacy seems so desperately desired in a time of social distancing. Characters touch one another in this production, sure, but taking the time to establish just how physically close these two actors are to each other feels more important than ever. And so, when the final deaths occur, with Romeo necking the potion that he had earlier stolen from Friar Laurence (no Apothecary here; the tools for Romeo’s suicide are gathered from the person who thinks he is helping them) and Juliet stabbing herself without a second’s hesitation or any gesture to romantic aestheticism, they feel driven by the same urgency. To find the other gone, after sharing such intimate moments, feels – perhaps for the first time I’ve ever felt when watching a Romeo and Juliet – unbearable. And at the point of their deaths, the production switches to flashback, taking us right back through their goodbyes, their night together, their wedding, their initial vows, their first meeting – and then back to the two actors smiling across the rehearsal room in that first circle. The connection between this Romeo and this Juliet once more transcends the play’s fiction and becomes rooted in the agreement to even play these roles together.

The cast is an embarrassment of riches. To have actors of the calibre of Adrian Lester emerge for only a few seconds now and again to impose authority and offer judgement is a treat, and Deborah Findlay does remarkably serious work as the Nurse, here an efficient and kindly presence whose grief over Juliet is entire. That the heavily cut production continues to keep pretty much the whole Paris subplot is an unusual choice, but Alex Mugnaioni does really nice, creepy work as a looming Paris who risks entirely overpowering Juliet, and who becomes the physical embodiment of Lady Capulet’s hold over her daughter. Even in tiny roles such as Peta (Ella Dacres) there’s a nice balance of humour and seriousness, as Peta asks for Romeo’s help reading the invitation without any mockery of either. But what’s especially pleasing is that this isn’t a film that is just built around two star performers relating to one another. Perhaps the most moving scene, for my money, is between Romeo and Benvolio as Benvolio comes to report Juliet’s death. The two are in what looks like a workshop in the bowels of the National, light pouring in through high-up window slits. Saraf is devastating, the loss of Mercutio fuelling his own despair even as he tries to get through to Romeo, who hurls objects across the room in rage as he hears of Juliet’s death. The pain that both have, which prevents either listening fully to the other and yet creates an even stronger bond between them, is cruelly realised. For a film rehearsed and filmed so quickly, there’s a lived-in depth to the characters, developed through judicious editing and respectful, measured performances, that allows the ensemble to raise the stakes for everyone.

When the final montage is over, the film cuts back to the rehearsal room and to a tableau, the Prince standing central among the cast gathered around the bodies of Romeo and Juliet, who lie on a table. Everyone is touching, laying hands on backs and shoulders, creating physical solidarity and comfort amid sorrow. In the act of touching and the single shot encompassing the whole cast, the production makes its final gesture towards the importance of theatre. For all of its filmic literacy, this is a production driven by real-time relationships between actors, by ensemble creation, by the physical energy that actors draw from one another. From the fast acceleration of the opening fight to the eroticism of Romeo and Juliet’s love to this final gesture of shared comfort, the production chooses to emphasise the importance of being together at the profoundest of times, to celebrate the pain and love and joy and hurt that are collaboratively created and collaboratively experienced; and in doing so, this Romeo and Juliet makes the boldest of claims for its mixed medium.

Thanks to Emer McHugh and Harry McCarthy for organising the #RJWatchParty, and everyone else who tweeted along with the premiere.

Posted in Film reviewTheatre review