12A – 210mins – 2016 – B&W
THE RO MUST GO ON
The performance last night was preceded by a clearly impromptu card-prompted introduction from Kenneth Branagh which explained Romeo (Richard Madden) had sustained an ankle injury just 48hours prior to this nationwide cinema simulcast (“the perils of live theatre!”). Nevertheless, the Game of Thrones actor was determined to power through this performance, which was part of the Cinderella director’s yearlong Plays at the Garrick season.
Branagh noted a few changes to the staging to better accommodate the lead’s mobility issues, but the show still flowed flawlessly and at no time did it appear the young Montague was in any sort of agony (other than of the heart) – quite remarkable given how he was still gamely dancing and fighting across the stage throughout.
Romeo & Juliet’s tone was set by the monochrome black and white palette, which empathised Branagh’s 1950’s Italian influence on Christopher Oram’s costume and set design. The camera direction on the night by Benjamin Caron was wonderfully dynamic and cinematic in its execution, with crucial scenes even incorporating focus blurs!
In fact, so polished was the entire production that I almost needed reminding that this wasn’t tirelessly edited together from hours of unusable rehearsal footage; this was happening live, albeit an hour down the road from where I watched it in my local Cineworld. There were no dropped props, fluffed monologues or even winces from the delicate Romeo.
From Lily James’ hopeful and gushing Juliet to Meera Syal’s dryly humorous Nurse, the entire cast were superb – with special mention due to Derek Jacobi’s aged take on Mercutio. In a vox pop screened in the build up to the broadcast Branagh explained his “Wilde” inspiration behind this potentially divisive casting decision, and Jacobi delivered it with spunk and assured nonchalance.
Perhaps it was the lack of Mercutio’s unerring, larger-than-life presence, or the downward spiral of the fleetingly-promising love story, but the second half (following a twenty minute interval in which the camera lingered on a bird’s eye view of the milling Garrick attendees) was far more intense and far less fun than the spirited first. Juliet’s father (Michael Rouse) in particular delivering a shockingly brutal disavowal of his daughter’s protest against an arranged suitor.
While the delivery of the awkwardly tongue-twisting Shakespearean verse made it impossible not to give the screen your full attention if you intended to stand any chance of following the ups and downs of this tragic tale, your concentration was rewarded with an impressive and immersive theatre experience. Purists may scoff at some of Branagh’s bolder revisions (a club song during the party scene, for instance), but this still retained the heartbreaking soul of the timeless original.
CR@B’s Claw Score: