Romeo and Juliet: London Theatrical Tour Part 3 of 6
Richard and Lily, A Tragedy in Two Acts
Romeo and Juliet is one of those Shakespeare plays that can go terribly wrong, or go so wonderfully right, and I would say that it has a lot to do with the leads, but not entirely. As with the musical Funny Girl that I saw a few days prior to seeing Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s star studded production, I have a movie adaptation that is stuck in my head that I have a hard time not comparing theatrical productions to. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, was a stylistically and emotionally fantastic take on this classic tale of tragic love (https://youtu.be/4VBsi0VxiLg) but not so much because of Leonardo, but of all the others, especially the depth of the characterizations of the secondary roles. The parents brought such depth and emotional power to the tragedy as did all the other secondary characters. This is where Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford got into some trouble of their own in this production.
Production designer, Christopher Oram, has set these two hours traffic on this stage of fair Verona in a Felliniesque La Dolce Vita Italy, and the style and the emotional energy works its magic on us giving us the heat and the passion that this story needs to make us believe in this fast and intense doomed love. I will say though that the heavy stone set (and the odd low balcony design) cooled the Italian hotness, and for whatever reason, the families’s feud feels like a squabble, not worth dying for.
Handsome Richard Madden (Robb Stark in HBO’s Game of Thrones) as Romeo gives us an air of a young testosterone-filled young man who is used to getting what he wants. The Shakespearian text seems to slide effortlessly out of his sensual lips giving us the kind of Romeo we can desire, and understand; a true heart throb. Lily James (Downton Abbey fame) is even more delicious as the young teenage girl just arriving into the sexual awakening of her womanhood. She is silly and childish, yet passionate and filled with longing and angst; giggling adorably and swigging champagne from the bottle after the heart racing excitement of her first crush. Just the kind of couple this play is built around, although with the great chemistry they have (which also was present in Branagh’s film, Cinderella, which starred these two young beautiful creatures), something doesn’t last long enough in their lustful romance. Madden sounds great and looks the part, and in the first scenes gives us the kind of man we want here, but as he progresses it’s like he looses steam, and with it the animalistic urges and intensity. The passion of these two dampens its fire, and becomes flat and unfocused.
Surrounding Madden is a forgettable pair of parents (Chris Porter and Zoe Rainey barely making an impression on us), cousins (Benvolio, played with a good spirit by Jack Colgrave Hirst), and friends, all hard to remember, except for the imaginatively cast and surprisingly fun Derek Jacobi as Mercutio. When I first saw his name attached to this production, I must admit I assumed he would be playing one of the fathers, most likely Lord Capulet, as that is the more interesting of the older male parts, but Branagh and Ashford cast him in the usually much younger role of the close friend of Romeo and a blood relative to Prince Escalus and Count Paris (a fine Tom Hanson). And Jacobi has the greatest of time giving us a feisty exuberant Mercutio, playing the part as if he is a party-loving older fop-like uncle; decked out in fashionable tailor-made suits and walking cane, always ready for a joke, a witty remark, and a drink. It’s a revelation and a joy to be hold, and in general, works like the wonder Jacobi is. The love and friendship between him and Romeo feels true and sweet, which causes his death to feel ever so sad and pointless. Why would these young men allow this gentleman to even participate in such a duel with the hot blooded Tybalt is a bit perplexing, but it was staged with conviction.
Over in the Capulet household, all sorts of performances are being given. James’s Juliet is cared for the feisty female counterpart to Jacobi’s Mercutio, the Nurse played with spark and sensuality by Meera Syal. She’s also a great deal of fun to watch but at times seems to not realize the moments of turmoil with enough depth and emotional solidness. Flirting with Friar Laurence (a perfectly fine but a bit forgettable Samuel Valentine) at a moment of pure desperation and upheaval felt odd and inappropriate, as did a few other scenes when Juliet’s world is collapsing. It seemed she found some fun in being the flirty feisty nurse, and didn’t know when to reel it back in.
Juliet’s parents, Lord and Lady Capulet, also fail to register the power that I was yearning for. Michael Rouse as the hot-headed father and the lovely Marisa Berenson (best known for her role as Natalia Landauer in the 1972 film, Caberet) as the distant and unsupportive mother seem to fade into the all-too-solid looking set that surrounds them. I was so thrilled to have this opportunity to see Berenson back at work on a London stage (although I did see her on Broadway in 2001’s revival, Design for Living), but the portrayal lacked a fire and a purpose. Why was it that she was SO distraught by the death of Tybalt (once again, a forgettable and one diminutional Ansu Kabia)? Berenson also failed to register why she lacked any passion to help her obviously distraught daughter against Lord Capulet’s plan of marriage to Paris:
"Talk not to me, for Ill not speak a word. Do as thou wilt for I have done with thee."
I wondered if Branagh, usually such a great Shakespearian director, pulling pretty amazing performances out of the two young leads, left the more seasoned stage actors to their own devices. Their intentions and their impulses seemed unfocused, which had a strong impact on our emotional connectivity. These two families did not feel to be in such a battle with each other, nor all that connected within the family itself.
The tragedy of this production is not so much in the two leads disastrous ending, but more in when the end finally does come, we find ourselves at odds with ourselves; on one hand, emotionally attached to this distressed couple but distant from the full ramifications and grief that surrounds them. We are in sync with their pain, but numb to the others devastation. And that just left me a bit at a loss when the Prince (a well spoken Taylor James) makes his last speech. It feels like the tragedy of the night, is the lack of grief that I felt walking out of the Garrick Theatre.
Romeo and Juliet. Directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh. Garrick Theater.