We are all sick of the word “pivot” by now, but this is truly a pivoted production. Originally planned as a live stage revival, the National Theatre brought their cast together for 17 days during the pandemic for a reconceived film adaptation of Shakespeare’s enduring tragedy. Why let all that memorization and character development go to waste? It was filmed on-location on-stage and backstage at the National’s grand Lyttleton Theatre (sans audience), which well suited the austere yet surprisingly powerful vision of director Simon Godwin. The result is an ironically cinematic Romeo & Juliet, which premieres tomorrow as part of the current season of Great Performances on PBS.
It is still Romeo & Juliet, so you really ought to know what that means. The Montagues hate the Capulets, to the point of dueling openly on the streets of Verona. Of course, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are the exceptions. They fall for each other hard at a costume ball and seal the deal when Romeo proclaims his love in the classic balcony scene. Friar Laurence secretly marries them, but his attempts to help the young lovers lead to unforeseen complications.
To some extent, Godwin’s approach is similar to that of Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street. At first, we merely see the actors in street clothes sitting down for a table run-through, but the characters soon start striding (and fighting) across the stage. It is a dark, post-industrial backdrop, but it serves the story better than you might expect. Here classical Verona looks more like the organized crime-dominated Naples or Sicily, of recent vintage. Life is stark and street violence, such as the duels that claim kinsmen like Tybalt and Mercutio, is commonplace. Godwin’s bold angles and dramatic visuals even harken back to early expressionism, but Michael Bruce’s minimalist score feels very contemporary.
This is not Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet, but the moodiness and aesthetic severity of Godwin’s production are far more effective than the sort of experimentation-for-its-own-sake of pretentious Donmar Warehouse “re-conceptions.” In this case, many of the departures from tradition are in large measure a reflection of necessity, which in turn, further instils energy and a sense of urgency in the production.
Still, Godwin and screen-adapter Emily Burns make an intriguing choice presenting Juliet’s mother as a Machiavellian Lady Macbeth-type, which works tremendously thanks to the intensity of Tamsin Grieg’s performance. More fundamentally, Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley have convincingly potent chemistry as the title lovers and they totally nail the crucial balcony scene.
Gangs of London) is also terrific as Father Laurence, reminding us of what a tragic figure he truly is—so well-intentioned and sympathetic, yet he ultimately brings our lovers to ruin. Burns’ unusually svelte adaptation (just over ninety minutes) shortchanges Mercutio’s black humor, which is too bad, but forgivable, since it serves the overall paciness.
Frankly, this is probably the best new Shakespeare-on-film since Kurzel’s gritty Macbeth. It has a distinctive look and sound, but still keeps faith with the original source play. Very highly recommended, the National’s Romeo & Juliet airs tomorrow night (4/23) on PBS and will be available on the PBS app for one month, starting the next day.