Branagh Theatre Live: ROMEO & JULIET (Live Review)

Image result for kenneth branagh romeo and juliet

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!

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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.

Image result for kenneth branagh romeo and julietWhile 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: 4 stars

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UPSTART CROW, 1.1 – “Star Crossed Lovers” (TV Review)

Upstart Crow. Will Shakespeare (David Mitchell). Copyright: BBC.BBC Two – 10pm – Monday 9th May 2016
Written by: Ben Elton
Directed by: Matt Lipsey


 

MAN BEHAVING BARDLY

Comic legend Ben Elton returns to familiar ground with this six part historical sitcom set in Tudor times. Horrible Histories’ Bill meets Blackadder in this farcical and fictionalised look at what “really” inspired William Shakespeare’s most renowned works, broadcast to celebrate what would have been the Bard’s 400th birthday.

In Monday’s opening episode, it is 1592 and rising playwright Bill (Peep Show’s David Mitchell) has had some stage success with his royal dramas (the Henrys), but is struggling to branch out into romance with his first draft of Romeo & Julian (“it’s a working title”) lacking a potent conclusion.

When his rival, “Master of Revels” Robert Green (Friday Night Dinner’s Mark Heap) demands our writerly protagonist babysit his lovelorn student nephew Florian (Kieran Hodgson) or have his play licence revoked, Bill has no option but to reluctantly agree. Will young toff Florian’s randy ways prove Bill’s undoing, or just the muse he requires to complete his unfinished work?

Upstart Crow. Image shows from L to R: Kempe (Spencer Jones), Bottom (Rob Rouse), Florian (Kieran Hodgson), Burbage (Steve Speirs), Condell (Dominic Coleman). Copyright: BBC.

Filmed in front of a live studio audience with some rather intrusive laughter signposting the punchlines, Upstart Crow is a tonally multifarious beast which takes its time to settle into a comfortable rhythm. The stagey, claustrophobic sets and high gag rate recall the hit BBC sitcoms of yesteryear, however these historical characters are gifted very modern, agitated demeanours – promoting female equality and moaning about the cheapness of knock-off brands, for instance – even when speaking in their olde worlde tongue.

“Bechambered hugger-tugger”

This is undoubtedly to make what many today believe to be highfalutin English literature palatable for a less-inclined twenty-first century audience (many jokes are made from Bill’s family failing to get the gist of his “flowery” dialogue without “lengthy explanation and copious footnotes”), but a couple of lazy anachronisms (“Master Bater”, “wankington”) sneak in simply because they raise an impish titter – as does the word “roistering” which is the only blatant case of Blackadder recycling (even if the plot veers close when a corpse is involved).

Bill strongly believes that “theatre should be challenging,” which makes Upstart Crow’s occasional reliance upon cheap laughs (“strum my lute”) all the more obvious. Thankfully in a script as replete with materials as this, a couple of awkward and cringey duds can be forgiven, as can its tongue-in-cheek potshots at its iconic source material (126 sonnets being written from Bill to a young boy… “it was platonic!”).

The bulk of the action is set in Bill’s London digs with chambermaid Kate (Gemma Whelan) and illiterate Baldrick-alike dogsbody Bottom (Rob Rouse) often unknowingly providing the Bard with vital plot assistance. But “Star Crossed Lovers” is framed by scenes set in Bill’s Stratford-upon-Avon homestead. The calibre of the actors in these brief bookends (Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox, Liza Tarbuck) implies that their roles will be expanded in later episodes – and on the merits of this scene-establishing debut I’m willing to return next week to see if that is the case.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

Bill (DVD Review)

PG – 90mins – 2015


 

THE COMEDY OF PRETENDERS

TV’s troupe of Horrible Histor-ians bring their irreverent-but-informative interpretations of the past to the big screen in this bard-y hilarious fictionalised take on William Shakespeare’s big break onto the sixteenth century showbiz scene, co-written and directed by Richard Bracewell.

The Wrong Mans’ Matthew Baynton plays the world’s most renowned playwright as a fame-hungry, marginally deluded young man of many talents but master of none (yet). Kicked out of his band, “Mortal Coil”, after one too many spotlight-stealing lute solos, Bill sets off to London in search of fame and fortune as a writer, leaving his wife (Martha Howe-Douglas) and kids behind in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

“Bill, you’re not a writer… it’s just another fad!”

Unbeknownst to the hapless Bill, who is overjoyed when the Earl of Croydon (Simon Top Coppers Farnaby) offers to put on his play as the centrepiece of a royal summit, he is actually aiding an assassination plot on Queen Elizabeth (Helen McCrory) by the Spanish King, Philip II (Ben Willbond), who wants the English throne for himself.

“[Writing a play] is just talking, but written down… this is easy!”

Bringing an exuberance to the script, there is an added theatricality in having the CBBC comedians perform multiple roles (“One man in his time plays many parts”). Bill often feels like a bunch of bantering mates playing dress up and having a riot doing it, irrespective of whether the audience laugh or not. Fortunately we do – and often – for the often frivolous humour is actually astutely clever, combining observational comedy, repeated callbacks and witty word play with farce at a sketch-like pace.

“Just a salad that needs addressing

From anachronistic off-hand comments about cameos and customs officers to musical numbers, lute-backed writing montages, “your mum” jokes and even Star Wars references, Bill offers something for everyone in the family to chuckle at. Mild innuendo and mentions of prostitutes and whores shocked me (this is a PG aimed at a young audience, after all), but it is relevant to the time period and never crude or unnecessarily explicit. Plus, parents will feel catered for.

By its very nature of being a period piece variety show, Bill will inevitably draw comparisons to Monty Python – and with scenes involving Trojan horses, coconuts and “Bring out your dead!” carts, you can’t help but feel like they are dothing their caps to their comedic predecessors. Such ostentatious bravery is to be commended, for this self-aware, tongue-in-cheek but respectful alternative history lesson makes what could be a dense and dull scholarly subject into an accessible piece of first-rate entertainment – and we could always do with more of that.

Encore!

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars

Macbeth (DVD Review)

15 – 113mins – 2015


 

IMPERFECT SPEAKERS

“Fair is foul and foul is fair”-ly off-putting in this latest big-screen adaptation of the Scottish play. Despite receiving a slew of award nominations and critical praise aplenty, director Justin Kurzel – currently filming the Assassin’s Creed movie with his Macbeth leading man – has arthouse aspirations for Shakespearian theatre which simply put me in mind of the overblown disaster that was Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic Noah (2014).

Haunting orchestral music strong with strings soundtracks artistically choreographed, slow-mo heavy battle scenes in near-silhouette, with much of the action played out on what look to be soundstages backed with beautifully picturesque landscapes.

Steve Jobs’ versatile Michael Fassbender does an admirable job as the troubled Thane of Cawdor with murder on his mind, but this lofty retelling just feels far too obviously staged and unnatural, leaving me cold to the verbose human drama and “supernatural soliciting” which follows the grimy, mist-shrouded battlefields.

CR@B Verdict: 2 stars