Review - Romeo and Juliet ((Garrick Theatre) via live broadcast)

Every year, countless productions of Romeo and Juliet are staged around the country. Some remain faithful to the original text and recreate the staging conditions as accurately as possible, while some opt for the popular technique of modernisation, in text, costuming, context or oftentimes a combination of all three elements. Either way, over 400 years since it was written, just about every staging gimmick has been done to death. And yet this production, set in 1950s Italy and screened in black and white to emphasise this (and create a subtly film noir esque air), Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford's production felt refreshingly uncomplicated, but stylish nonetheless. 

Photo credit - Johan Persson
Screening the production in black and white really emphasised what an elegantly designed production this was. The costumes by Christopher Oram were chic and flattering, and set design, also by Christopher Oram, was similarly slick and felt simultaneously airy and claustrophobic. Both elements helped to plant the production firmly in 1950s Verona. While the use of black and white to represent the two feuding families was not exactly groundbreaking, dressing the lovers in monochromatic costumes was an interesting appendage to the symbolism. 

While it was clear that this production was built around Richard Madden and Lily James (last seen as lovers in Disney's 2015 Cinderella remake, which Branagh also directed). The most interesting bit of casting was undoubtedly Derek Jacobi as Mercutio. Jacobi played an aged yet mischievous and rather dapper Mercutio, and his unconventional casting changed the dynamic of Romeo, Benvolio (Jack Colgrave Hirst) and Mercutio's friendship for the better, emphasising Mercutio's role as the peacekeeper of the group, while revelling in jokes and innuendo. Given how likable the character was, it was a shame to see his duel with Tybalt (Ansu Kabia) was practically non-existent, and his death scene seemed rushed and lacked any sense of real tragedy or loss. Meera Syal was similarly engaging as Juliet's loving yet exasperated nurse, and her comedic and somewhat coy performance was original and very entertaining.

Photo credit - Johan Persson
As the titular characters, Richard Madden and Lily James were likable, but did little to elevate the text or present it in any groundbreaking way, and  both seemed too mature to convincingly sell the rashness of the pair's hormone and malaise fuelled love at first sight. However, the couple did share several entertaining scenes including a particularly humorous balcony scene, and James' heartbreaking and hysterical act two Juliet was devastatingly good, if a little cloying toward the middle of the act.

Act two seemed shorter than usual, and yet still the bombardment of heightened emotion meant that the dramatic finale failed to pack the level of punch expected from the classic tragedy. However, the finale did bring with it one of the most affecting moments of the night, delivered by Michael Rouse and Chris Porter as Lords Capulet and Montague. Their reconciliation at the very end was touching and striking in its simplicity. 

All in all, while by no means groundbreaking, this production of Romeo and Juliet was entertaining, voguish and well cast, and the conversion to black and white on screen worked very well. It is brilliant to see such a star studded production made so accessible via cinema screening, and while the pros and cons of recorded videos vs. live theatre are still being debated, increasing the accessibility of high profile productions can't be a bad thing!