'Romeo and Juliet': Theater Review

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Richard Madden and Lily James are reunited on stage by their ‘Cinderella’ director Kenneth Branagh for this London production.

So often the first Shakespeare play students are exposed to in high school is Romeo and Juliet. Its impetuous teen protagonists, fighting, flirting and fast-paced time frame make it a great beginners’ slope for Bard newbies. Commercially, it’s the perfect play for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company to be mounting right now during the troop’s yearlong West End residency at the Garrick. Opening late in May, the production arrives just in time to welcome the rising tide of tourists to London as well as busloads of British school kids up for a high-culture treat before the summer break.

Casting only enhances its appeal. The show reunites director Branagh (co-directing here with Rob Ashford) with the toothsome stars of his Disney film adaptation of Cinderella, Richard Madden (Game of Thrones, Bastille Day) and Lily James (Downton Abbey, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). They’re joined by TV’s Meera Syal (The Kumars) and ambulatory British institution Derek Jacobi, whose professional relationship with Branagh stretches back at least as far as the 1989 film version of Henry V. Even if the show were terrible, which it’s not, all of the above should add up to tickets selling as fast as machine-squirted vanilla ice cream on a summer’s day in Hyde Park.

However, while it’s not actively bad, neither is it an especially inspired production. It’s a “fine, that’ll do” sort of effort. Like so many of Branagh’s interpretations of Shakespeare, on both stage and screen, this one resets the story via costume and production design in an almost randomly chosen non-Elizabethan setting (post-WWII Italy). The text has been judiciously tightened for those with shorter-attention spans; marquee-name stars are mixed with old pros; and some on-the-nose music (by Patrick Doyle) and other cinematic tricks have been threaded throughout to guide understanding. The whole job is done with faintly dull professionalism.  

Branagh’s stolid showmanship is admirable, but a few more surprises might have been welcome. The most startling move here is the casting of Jacobi as Mercutio, a part most often played by actors around the same age as the production’s Romeo. Jacobi’s take on the character is to channel Mercutio’s cynicism through the persona of a fruity old boozer — a dapper, sweet old soak who takes a grappa with his morning coffee. Some will thrill to his rolling, grandiloquent delivery of the Queen Mab speech in Act 1, but others might wonder if it’s not meant to suggest a barroom bore who can’t resist dragging out every story with doddering delivery once he has the floor. When he takes on strapping, lethal-looking Tybalt (Ansu Kabia, an aptly roaring “prince of cats”) in combat, he cuts an absurd figure, which makes his death surprisingly touching after he’s accidentally skewered.

The odder surprise is that given how well they worked as a couple in Cinderella, Madden and James as the title’s star-crossed lovers are somewhat lacking in chemistry onstage. On press night, Madden sounded a little hoarse and might have been under the weather. His Romeo looks the part, especially comely in a slightly off-period sharp grey suit. And he moves with impressive grace — the climactic sword fight with Tybalt is executed with beat-perfect choreographed beauty — but Madden’s line deliveries lack variety and the leads’ kisses lack heat.

James impresses more, especially in her big suicide scene as she increases the despair and hysteria by fine gradations. In the early stages, her giddy girlishness is infectiously sweet, especially when she cartwheels off the stage like the 13-year-old that Juliet is meant to be. The character’s narrative arc is in a way not that different from Natasha’s in War and Peace, a role James played with knockout aplomb in the recent BBC miniseries, but here it all happens much more quickly.

Indeed, what’s best about this production is the sense of breathless headlong plunging, the speed with which we go from tangoing to techno music and cracking wise with Syal’s saucy Nurse (a cheering display of comic timing even if her accent wobbled all over the shop), to all the slice-and-dice stabbiness of the second half. A still breathtakingly elegant Marisa Berenson and Michael Rouse as Lady and Lord Capulet, respectively, encapsulate this transition from civility to barbarity in miniature. When first introduced they’re a pair of elegant toffs, but by the time Lord Capulet starts pressuring Juliet to marry Paris, he’s become a bullying, abusive patriarch, terrorizing all.

The program notes feature an essay on Italy in the late 1950s, there to underscore how Federico Fellini’s black-and-white masterpiece La Dolce Vita (1960) is meant to be a visual touchstone. But the full, New-Look skirts and nipped-in waists of the women’s costumes make this feel, in period terms, more like 10 years before that, at the height of the economic desperation captured so vividly in the neorealist movies of the late 1940s and early ’50s, where violence is much more likely to erupt. The monochrome designs of Christopher Oram’s costumes and stark set — dominated by towering marbled columns that go up and down from the flies — make the blood stains in the climactic stretch pop all the more luridly.

Venue: Garrick Theatre, London
Cast: Marisa Berenson, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Tom Hanson, Matthew Hawksley, Derek Jacobi, Lily James, Taylor James, Pip Jordan, Ansu Kabia, Richard Madden, Rachael Ofori, Nikki Patel, Chris Porter, Zoe Rainey, Michael Rouse, Meera Syal, Samuel Valentine, Kathryn Wilder
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Directors: Rob Ashford, Kenneth Branagh
Set and costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Howard Hudson
Music: Patrick Doyle
Sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Fight director: Bret Yount
Choreographer: Rob Ashford
A Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company production, presented by Fiery Angel

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