I haven’t seen a Shakespeare performance in ages. Since, possibly, two years ago, when I was studying abroad in the U.K. (Blasphemy, I know — hopefully Friar Lawrence will count this as a sufficient attempt at confession.)
So when I heard there would be a live broadcast of Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick — starring Lily James and James Madden — at my nearby movie theater July 7, 2016, I bought tickets three weeks in advance and counted down the days.
Co-directors Branagh and Rob Ashford chose to set the scene of fair Verona in 1950s Italy. Territorial brawls at outdoor cafes, full swing-esque skirts, and harsh ululations in rapid Italian attempted to emulate la dolce vita. The choice to film the international live broadcast and its accompanying featurettes solely in black and white also recalled the iconic Italian movies of the same era. The sets — excluding that of the final scene in the Capulet tomb, in which all exits are cut off by darkened lights and a black angular wall like that in a prison — are simplistic and airy, made of shifting pillars of faux sandstone that neither cut off the characters’ passages across the stage nor interrupt the scenes. The costumes are relegated to the colors black — for the side characters — and pure white for the young title characters, allowing them to stand out not only in their physicality but also in their loyalties (or lack thereof) to their families and peers.
Though some have touted the show’s “pulsating energy” and exuberance, several initial critics seem to have lamented that the show doesn’t fully, as Holly Williams writes in The Independent, “plumb the full depths of tragedy.” Others point to a lack of chemistry in James and Madden’s performances. Dominic Cavendish with The Telegraph paints Madden’s Romeo as “maddeningly ordinary” hero without “the hormonal passion, the angst, the volatility” expected. Susannah Clapp with The Guardian admits that James as Juliet has “an appealing Bambi presence and some good bits of giddy business” in becoming “truly teenage…. Yet her delivery of the verse is watery.” And everyone, everyone, had an issue with Juliet’s balcony for Act II, Scene 2, complaining it was too short and close to the ground, cutting off her state as an ethereal, higher, unreachable being in Romeo’s eyes (recall “Juliet is the sun” (II.ii.3) and “O, speak again, bright angel” (II.ii.29)) at the start of this scene.
Much of this production had the reverse effect on me.
When I first read William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I was in eighth grade. I was thirteen. I was exactly Juliet’s age. I’m sure either school curriculum or my overzealous English teacher rendered it this way in the hopes of making my fellow students and me connect more with our first Shakespeare.
It didn’t work. For me, at least. While I did fall head over heels in love with Shakespeare, I came to loathe Romeo and Juliet. Everyone — including Taylor Swift in “Love Story” and Baz Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet (1996) — portrayed it as the ideal romance, an intense, passionate, and bloody love affair. I could never get over the fact that Lady Capulet and Nurse go out of their way to declare that Juliet is “not fourteen” (I.iii.13) when conspiring to marry her off. To me, there was no way two Italian kids barely scraping by teenagedom could realize and enact the iconically tragic romance everyone sees in this play.
In Branagh and Ashford’s Romeo and Juliet, Lily James and Richard Madden realized the play in its truest form for me. When Juliet and Romeo first lay eyes on each other, they awkwardly push masque ball masks off their faces, blush, and look away as fast as they can while beaming like they’ve seen the sun for the first time. They bump into and circle around each other — simultaneously like kids keeping Jesus between them at a dance and heavenly bodies in orbit — when enacting “Give me my sin again” (I.v.121; see below).
Later, when he stands below her balcony, Romeo stands facing away from Juliet, as if she truly were the sun and he cannot look directly at her. My absolute favorite moment may have been James’s delivery of the line “I should have been more strange” (II.ii.107), like a young girl terrified of scaring away the first boy to ask her to hold hands, maybe to dance. She smiles and moves at once nervously and impishly, and becomes a domineering woman in seconds when she demands Romeo “swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon” (II.ii.114) and “[i]f that thy bent of love be honorable, thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow” (II.ii.150-151). Lovesick and devoted, Romeo bends to her will, smiling through it all and running immediately to the friar to procure a marriage ceremony.
This Romeo and Juliet are not passionate, intense lovers. They are bumbling, awkward first-timers who don’t know if they should — or can — touch, kiss, stand close.
While many of the play’s critics argued this lighthearted, teenage-drama romance took away from the depth of Shakespeare’s tragedy, I found that I finally understood the play for the first time, and felt this version of the romantic plot emphasized the play’s tragic ending. Arguably, this rendition opens as a traditional Shakespearian comedy: there is dancing, singing, and laughing; there are masques, declarations of love, united families, and a marriage. Act II ends with Romeo and Juliet’s wedding ceremony while Act III allows the first acts of true violence and vengeance to enter on stage. The emphasis on comedy — especially in James’s portrayal of a young, inexperienced Juliet playing at lover — prior to Act III greatly contrasts with the more serious and vicious events that follow. As the play closes, however, with a final scene with corpses littering the stage, we discover we’ve been tricked: We weren’t meant to laugh, we weren’t meant to take young love for granted. We were watching a tragedy; we were watching resilient young love be abused — as Juliet’s father physically abuses and denies her —, poisoned, and stained by hate and prejudice.
Ultimately, though I went into this live broadcast just looking to get a bit more Shakespeare (and — admittedly — Lily James) into my life, I exited with a new perspective entirely on the bard’s classic and oft-quoted play. I’ve just pulled my Romeo and Juliet from high school out of the back of my bookshelf, and am currently thumbing through it, frantically taking notes and getting overexcited. Though I do wish there had been more exploration of the setting — the 1950s are post-WWII, after all, so how would that affect such a volatile social sphere as that between the Montagues and the Capulets? — beyond Derek Jacobi’s delivery of Mercutio’s Queen Mab soliloquy, I greatly enjoyed this production.
Here’s to some iambic pentameter, wild double entendres, awkward teen eye contact, and a story of woe, of Juliet and her Romeo.
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Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 1992. Print.