Romeo and Juliet has been staged and filmed in countless ways and the fascination with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers continues unabated. But what can a theatre company, even one as large as England’s National Theatre do during a pandemic. You can stage a play without an audience, and it has been done, but somehow it does not work.
The National Theatre came up with a unique solution. Film a performance as if it were taking place in the backstage of The National Theatre. Is it a rehearsal? The actors appear in their street clothes in a large room and sit around an empty space and speak Shakespeare’s lines. But there is no director, no attempt in blocking and it appears like a helter-skelter performance. It is nothing of the kind.
It is a film in which all the lines spoken are from the play but you soon realize that it takes serious liberties with the text. Whole scenes are completely omitted or reduced to a few lines. There is serious gerrymandering throughout including omission of characters and transposition of lines to other people. At a run of about 90 minutes, perhaps half of Shakespeare’s play has been edited out. We miss some of the long speeches and would have liked some scenes not to have been so severely decapitated but the result is an original approach that leaves you moved and entertained.
Do you really want to see a film that does that to a beloved play? You bet your sweet bippy if I may coin a new catchphrase.
There are many compromises but director Simon Godwin does not take any shortcuts when it come to the delivery of Shakespeare’s lines. It is as if Godwin commands us to pay attention to the lines, the poetry, the extraordinary flow of words. Most of them are delivered in closeups and the absence of scenery and other characters in most scenes compel us to follow the text however sharply edited.
In Josh O’Connor we get a Romeo who is dreamy and lost and becomes a passionate and dedicated lover. Jessie Buckley’s Juliet is equally passionate, dramatic and dedicated to her lover. These are stunning performances under severe limitations. I would have preferred that the sonnet they speak when first meeting (“If I profane with my unworthiest hand/ This holy shrine) was allowed without flashbacks or is it forward flashes. Its beauty should not be violated.
Outstanding performances are given by Deborah Findlay as The Nurse, Lucian Msamati as The Friar, Tamsin Greig as Lady Capulet. Findlay is a no-nonsense nurse but her dirty mind is deleted. We miss that but her performance gives us a sympathetic Nurse. Msamati is a thoroughly fine Friar, humane and at the same time an expert in poisons. Greig’s Lady Capulet exudes authority but she is also capable of vilely cursing her daughter when she refuses to bend to her will and marry Prince Paris. Those lines are Lord Capulet’s in the original play but Godwin and adapter Emily Burns transpose them to Lady Capulet.
Godwin and Burns take an interesting turn with Romeo’s friends Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade) and Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) by making them gay. But they are very much in the play and doing a fine job whereas some other characters like Friar John, the Apothecary and Balthazar are eliminated.
Interspersing bits of the play in flashbacks in the middle of a well-known part of the play, I could have done without. The backstage filming is almost done away with for some of the production. Rome and Juliet meet at a party with music and dancing and are are married in front of a backdrop of lit candles. There is almost a balcony for the famous scene, at least a stepladder to go up on.
The pandemic has been catastrophic for all people working in the theatre and, of course, theatre companies. The National Theatre has found a way of bringing one of the great plays of the standard repertoire to us, albeit in a seriously changed version. It is worth it.
Romeo and Julietby William Shakespeare, adapted by Emily Burns, recorded backstage at the National Theatre in 2021, is available from the National Theatre at www.ntathome.com.