“Two households, both alike in dignity. In fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny. Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes. A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life
Whose mis-adventured piteous overthrows. Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.” – WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – ROMEO AND JULIET
This morning I went with my dear friend and Shakespeare Aficionado Imogen to see a screening of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet… and to sum this review up in three words I adored it! I’ve seen a few theatre screenings including Of Mice and Men and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night over the past few years and I love them. They make it possible for us theatre enthusiasts in little ‘ol NZ to see fantastic British and American theatre. The screenings in general work well offering you a much closer look at the actors faces and set details and costumes than a seat in the actual audience would. However, this play was so incredibly suited to be filmed. Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford worked with Benjamin Caron to direct it in such a way that it would not only make an impact on stage but additionally on film. They used multiple camera angles to ensure that you got the best shot and the close ups allowed you to see the at times heart-wrenching and at times humorous facial expressions of the cast.
Speaking of the cast Branagh hired a number of marvelous actors for this play. Personal standouts for me were Lily James and Richard Madden as the titular couple and Meera Syal as the nurse. Lily and Richard had beautiful chemistry in last years Cinderella (also directed by Kenneth Branagh) so I was excited to see them together again in this and pleased to find their chemistry was just as palpable, if not more so! Also the two of them together is just too much gorgeousness for one screen!! Having seen Lily in War and Peace, Cinderella and Downton Abbey I was already sure she would make the perfect swooning, lovesick Juliet. She was able to change from giddy to heartbroken in a single line and was able to create a vulnerable breathy and eye-lash fluttering Juliet that still dominated the stage.
In contrast having only seen Richard Madden in Game of Thrones and Cinderella I wasn’t sure what to expect… I was pleasantly surprised; his Romeo was funnier than I first thought though he also delivered the more dramatic monologues excellently and brought a real intensity to the fight sequences especially considering he was performing injured -you never would have known! Additionally he brought a fantastic sense of camaraderie in his scenes with Jack Colgrave Hirst as Benvolio and Derek Jacobi as an interestingly-cast older and highly humorous Mercutio. Equally as humorous was Meera Syal as the nurse, she brought a much needed levity to certain scenes and had a wonderfully warm chemistry with Lily. Meera combined physical comedy with equally as sharp facial expressions and ended up commanding the stage in every scene she was in. The entire cast was overall very strong with my only real dislike being Michael Rouse as Lord Capulet. It wasn’t necessarily his performance, he just did not look anywhere near old enough to be Lily as Juliet’s Father he seemed a little miscast.
The overall film noir aesthetic of the play made my inner film student practically giddy. The audience obviously saw the show in color however Branagh, Rob Ashford and Caron made the decision to screen the film in black and white in a 16:9 ratio. A decision I believe completely enriched their inspired Italian 1950’s setting. The 50’s setting and therefore costumes added a wonderful layer of accessibility to the Shakespearean dialogue. Juliet was very prettily dressed in all white or light-colored clothing which provided a lovely focal point in an otherwise darker toned palette. Richard Madden was a sharply dressed James Dean-esque figure – brooding included – to Juliet’s innocent damsel a la Sandy from Grease – musical numbers included! The chiascuro-style lighting was the key to achieving this film noir aesthetic and the play’s ever-shifting balance between light and shadows and hostility and love. I especially liked the lighting behind Juliet’s white curtain and the characters use of torches and candles on stage which played a huge role in the plays changing tone.
Adding to this tone was the beautifully minimalist staging. The Italian plaza staging with its columns and steps provided not only a strong sense of the Italian Verona origin of the story but also a high level of versatility in which actors could be placed and choreographed easily. Branagh, Ashford and Caron were a great directing trio obviously having directed film as well as theatre they made great use of foreground and background action as well as using the stairs for levels and the columns for diverse stage entrances. The props were kept to a minimum and the main changing of scene was done simply by alternating the back of the stage switching between; Juliet’s stone balcony, the death bed, the glittering party curtain, the stone church wall and the white curtain shroud of Juliet’s home. The minimalist yet structured staging allowed the audience to really focus of the cast’s excellent performances with very few distractions.
One other significant aspect I enjoyed was the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The setting was bulked up with little things such as bird song and church bells which I feel just add another layer and engross the audience that bit more. The non-diegetic sound, though I am sure somewhat unconventional for a Shakespeare play, worked marvelously there was a mix between jazzy 50’s music and heart wrenching orchestral score. There also was indeed a few musical numbers… if you can call them that? Samuel Valentine as the Friar sang a few laments as did Peta and Lady Montague. The coolest one was Juliet’s party song which I thought was a clever way to have her capture Romeo’s attention and instant desire. Those who watched Cinderella would know that Lily has a gorgeous voice so it was a pleasant surprise to hear it again in this!
You know what? I’m fairly certain I could write a small novel on this play and all its beautiful details but as I look at my word count I realize I have written 1000+ words on this wonderful piece of theatre… that is 1000+ words I could have written on two of my current essays tonight… Whoops? So alas I must say to thee “Goodnight! Goodnight! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.”
***** – 5 out of 5 stars – If you get a chance to see this I highly recommend it!
Until Morrow! – C x