Thursday, 26 May 2016
Romeo & Juliet @ The Garrick Theatre
Classical columns frame the piazza. The inhabitants of Verona - chic, suave and sophisticated - sip their morning coffee. There's tension between the warring families that crackles in the sizzling Italian heat. Enter Richard Madden's boyish Romeo, swaggering across the stage in crisp white and aviators, jacket nonchalantly swung over his shoulder.
This production of the Shakespearean favourite, the latest in Kenneth Branagh's series, is an incredibly sexy take on the love story. Italian passion radiates from the stage. It's there in Howard Hudson's scorching lighting design. It's there in the passing feuds between the ensemble who spit Italian phrases like daggers. It's there in the nighttime dances, the whole family dispute playing out like a tango. And it's there in the lustful chemistry between the leads, as desperate to sleep together as they are to fall in love.
It's an aesthetic that owes more than a passing debt to The Godfather, with its emphasis on family values and its soundtrack that oscillates between jazz and mournful strings. It might not be original, but there's no denying this modern adaptation is a perfect setting for Shakespeare's text.
That's not to say it's faultless. There are some missteps here. For the most part, the first act breezes by and finds plenty of humour in the text, though it feels a little lightweight. Meera Syal makes for a particularly comic and boisterous Nurse, but she borders on caricature. Then there's Derek Jacobi as Mercutio - an older, camp, jester of a character. It's certainly an amusing portrayal, but would Romeo and Benvolio really be hanging out with a bumbling idiot a good forty years their senior? There's little justification for this casting decision beyond offering Jacobi some stage time.
It's in the second act that the play really finds its feet, depicting the defiance and strength of a young girl (Lily James' Juliet) mature beyond her years, lustful with passion, and desperate with love. Resisting her father, Michael Rouse's Mafia-like Lord Capulet, results in the play's most tense scene, emphasising that focus on family and its volatility. The mise en scene, from set designer Christopher Dram, of Juliet's false death is classically framed and beautifully done, only bettered by the climactic death of the lovers. For such a melodramatic scene, it's played with utterly believable sincerity by James and Madden whose performances find the humanity in these somewhat fantastical young creatures.
The use of sacred chant is the tear-stained icing on the cake of this sexy yet mournful production that blurs the lines between classicism and modernity. It's not quite iconic, but Shakespeare's tragic romance is as moving here as it's ever been.
Watch: Romeo & Juliet runs at the Garrick Theatre until 13th August.