Romeo & Juliet
by William Shakespeare
The Kenneth Branagh Company
Directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh
Set and costume design by Christopher Oram
Music composed by Patrick Doyle
The Garrick Theatre, London
Saturday 21st May 2016, 14.30
Richard Madden as Romeo
Lily James as Juliet
Derek Jacobi as Mercutio
Meera Syal as The Nurse
Marisa Berenson – Lady Capulet
Jack Holgrave Hirst – Benvolio
Tom Hanson – Paris
Matthew Hawksley – Anthony/1st Musician, Friar John, Third Guard
Taylor James – Prince
Pip Jordan – Potpan, Second Musician & Second Guard
Ansu Kabia – Tybalt, First guard
Rachael Ofori – Sampson and Page
Nikki Patel – Balthasar
Chris Porter – Lord Montague
Zoe Rainey – Lady Montague
Michael Rouse – Lord Capulet
Samuel Valentine – Friar Lawrence
Kathryn Wilder- Peter / Apothecary
Branagh’s live action Cinderella for Disney is the genesis of all this. Lily James played Cinderella, and Richard Madden played Prince Kit, i.e. Prince Charming. They’re reunited for this. I thought Lily James’s impossibly small waist in Cinderella was computer graphics, but according to her it was a terrifying corset. She was Lady Rose in Downton Abbey, and more importantly, Natasha in the BBC Sunday night TV series of War and Peace.
The other USP is casting Derek Jacobi, who played The King in Cinderella, as Mercutio, at age 77 rather than 17. Let’s dispel memories of Mark Rylance’s disastrous geriatric Much Ado About Nothing with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave. This is nothing like that.
It’s good to see so many of the other parts played by actors from The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade, making it a real “company.”
The tickets cost a fortune, more than twice as much as The Globe, but when you see a production at this level, everything is justified. Kenneth Branagh, as a director, is in a class of his own. This was our fourth Shakespeate in ten days. Productions favour action (The Globe) or text (Trevor Nunn). With Branagh, both are there. The set and costume design is by Christopher Oram, the music by Patrick Doyle. Add one of the great classical actors in Derek Jacobi, one of our national treasures as a comedian, Meera Syal, and then the two lovers, Richard Madden and Lily James. To be fair, you can’t go far in London without finding a British actor who wasn’t in either Game of Thrones (Richard Madden was Rob Stark) or Downton Abbey, but both fully justify their inclusion at the highest level.
The concept is post-war Verona. Sometime after 1945. Everything is in black and white too, as were classic Italian films. The set design, probably the set of the year, but let’s see what comes later, consists of stone effect squared pillars. They raise and lower in any number of combinations. We also get a rising balcony, a rising tomb, and descending vault walls for the last scene. I had Anglo-Italian friends whose parents met in Verona in 1945 and heard much about the war’s end and aftermath. Then the 50s were the Italian decade; music, food, espresso, Lambrettas, Fiat 500s, La Dolce Vita, films set in Rome, Italian suits and shoes. At one point, Peter, the servant is fiddling with a 45 rpm record. Mario Marini perhaps. It’s in a white sleeve. They only have to ask. I can send them a genuine green and red 1950s Durium Records sleeve. Is there a West Side Story influence reflecting back? The T-shirts and rolled sleeves and vests echo the Italian-Americans as well as Verona. I thought of Romeo as Tony at a couple of points.
The Capulet’s party: Juliet (Lily James) sings, Romeo (Richard Madden) watches
Otherwise … The attention to detail is meticulous. The stone pillars are pockmarked here and there with shrapnel and bullet holes, just as the Pergamon Museum in Berlin is. The bullet holes were repaired in West Berlin, the Russians deemed they should remain in East Berlin as a constant reminder. The costumes match, white, black, or black and white. There is very little colour, until we see Mercutio’s blood, so it comes as shocking as the painted in red flag on the B&W film Battleship Potemkin.
There is constant movement from the start with voice over prologue (is that Kenneth Branagh?) straight into arguments and fighting. Two women square up, one smashes a bottle on a table. The Prince (or Police Chief here) arrives to put a stop to it. Music throbs, pulsates, propels. The mood of 1950s Italy works totally for the play.
The sharpness of the immaculate suits marked Lord Montague and Lord Capulet, as did the exquisite frocks with petticoats of their elegant wives. Juliet’s dad, Lord Capulet (Michael Rouse), combined avuncular welcoming Mafia godfather, with intense screaming rage, never more so than when he threw Juliet on the ground and jumped on top of her when she declined to marry Paris. Marisa Berenson plays Lady Capulet and brings with her the mature beauty of the 1970s supermodel she was.
At the Capulet party, the one that Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio gatecrash, Juliet takes our attention, singing her lines into a microphone to piano accompaniment as a 1950s torch song (the sort of tune on Bob Dylan’s latest, Fallen Angels). It’s the young girl showing off her singing prowess at dad’s party – it captivates Romeo.
L to R: Mercutio (Derek Jacobi), Romeo (Richard Madden), Bemvolio (Jack Colgrave Hirst)
Who on earth realized that the burly combative Mercutio’s lines would work perfectly from an aging gay man? Derek Jacobi’s performance has us all laughing, as he minces across the stage, then he switches to deadly serious when he fights Tybalt (at age 77!). He made total sense of Mercutio’s long dying speech, repeating ‘A plague on both your houses!’ Masterly acting. Masterly casting. Masterly direction.
Juliet (Lily James) and Romeo (Richard Madden): the balcony scene
The balcony scene is funny. Intentionally. It’s also the best I’ve ever seen it, with the excited Juliet swigging from a champagne bottle and looking about to throw up. A young girl at her first big party? New light is thrown on the whole scene, and all those lines from both which are so familar. At the start of Part 2, Juliet’s long speech is delivered with writhing passion by Lily James, alone, back tight against a column. Lily James has a quality on stage … my companion describes it as “wild faun.” At her very first entrance, her Juliet could even be 13 (I’m with the school of thought that a text change to 15 or 16, which has been done, is desirable), but by the balcony, she’s grown up fast.
Juliet (Lily James)
Tybalt was another full-on ferocious character. While highly critical of most fight scenes, the vigorous Tybalt-Romeo fight was actually exciting and covered the entir stage. When Tybalt’s body ( Ansu Kabia) was carried off after the fight, he stayed absolutely stiff and straight. How do you do that?
Romeo and Tybalt (Ansu Kabia)fight
The nurse has been the most memorable part in several productions we’ve seen. It’s great comic relief, and Meera Syal was very funny indeed. The trying to cool herself with a fan (no plot spoilers) was tears in the eyes hilarious. Her body language and reactive work throughout was extremely good.
On exits, characters argued in vociferous Italian … is there any other kind? All the minor characters are excellent, and as at The Globe, minor roles are played by women. Most notably, Peter, the servant, is much funnier as female (Kathryn Wilder), fancying Benvolio.
Samuel Valentine plays Friar Laurence, while he played Romeo in last year’s Globe version of the play. I guess it makes him an instantly ready understudy. The Friar gets a full part here, and the “confession scene” scene employed a pillar very well, with Romeo and the Friar tight either side of it.
Inevitability: you do know where it’s going … Juliet (Lily James), Romeo (Richard Madden)
I’ve always had a problem with “Romeo and Juliet” in the second half, it’s the dread inevitability of the sequence of events. Not here. This was the first time it ever felt so tragic, so real. There is no question that this is the best Romeo & Juliet I have ever seen, and that runs through to every department. Both the leads are the best I’ve seen, and I include film. The white light on the dead lovers at the end just intensified progressively, reflecting on Juliet’s dress. Brilliant lighting, as it was throughout.
This defines a 5 star production, not only that but the best thing (so far) in the Branagh Company season, and at the end of May, the best play so far this year.
CRITICS (ADDED NOTE)
Lesley’s comment below was right. It’s Thursday 26th and reviews are in:
Superb “Welcome” by Kenneth Branagh, discussing his experiences of the play age 13, and the best actor he ever saw in Hamlet … Derek Jacobi, who is Mercutio here. I’d add that Jacobi was the best Malvolio I’ve seen, in the first Grandage season.
It is however £5 to The Globe or RSC’s £4, and has a lot of adverts padding it out. The plain black programmes could have afforded a cover design at the price, but I just put it on the shelf where I keep RSC and Globe programmes. It has a proper spine with lettering. A good innovation for those of us who keep programmes.
Please, please, please do another Branagh Company season. BUT … while The Garrick Theatre clearly has the onstage facilities to incorporate such a huge lowering and raising set, it is a vile theatre in the auditorium. The seats are uncomfortable, at 6′ 2″ my legs are jammed tight in Row D of the stalls … the best seats. There’s virtually no rake. It’s a fight to get to the woefully inadequate loos. They have invested heavily on redoing the gilt paint, and who cares about the gilt paint, but can’t Sir Kenneth find a decent well-equipped modern theatre? Much as I loathe The Barbican’s draughty halls and location, even that would be better, though it seems tied up with the RSC again. I loathe classic West End Theatres, and this is a bad one.