Romeo and Juliet has a story which has “mileage”. In Opera, Ballet, the Concert Hall, the Musical Theatre and (no doubt) on ice as well. It’s about man’s folly. The Shakespeare tragedies usually are. The follies of revenge, or ambition , or jealousy or power or madness.
Here, to an extent , we address the follies of youth. But in fact the star-crossed lovers, whilst perhaps foolish in the depth and urgency of their passion, are actually among the saner characters in Shakespeare’s great work of art.
The Montagues and Capulets are symbols and metaphors for ancient and modern tribal disputes. Leonard Bernstein and his collaborators saw that their story was identical to that of the gangs of Manhattan island. The Jets and Sharks fight one another because they fight one another. In Verona it was much the same. As it is in Belfast or Londonderry.
When the disputes of the playground, in all their childish absurdity, become seen in adult life reason goes out of the window. When I was a student I met a young couple whose relationship had to be clandestine because she was from the Falls Road and he was from the Shankill. This was in 1967 and, of course, that all got worse before it got better.
Any production of “Romeo and Juliet” has to confront and explore the absurdity of why the love of Romeo for Juliet and she for him scandalises the Verona establishment. It has to explore the cruelty of denying that most magically human phenomenon – young love. Any parent who feels his child is embarking on an imprudent relationship will know what this is like ! In the Kenneth Branagh Theatre’s new production there is nothing imprudent at all. He (Richard Madden) is a level headed and mature Romeo. She (Lily James) a lovely, innocent but far from childish Juliet. It’s not them – it’s the grown ups who foul it all up!
And so to the heart of the play. Bigotry, prejudice, the conviction that the past (whatever happened there) sets today the behavioural norms that you should follow. In Verona “No Juliet you must not love Romeo because Romeo is a Montague”. In West Belfast “No Iain you may not love Mary because Mary is a Catholic.”
Kenneth Branagh and his co-director tell the story straight. There is no embellishment, no excuses, no apology. Juliet’s father is a monster here. He even strikes his daughter. Why? Because her love is profane? No. Because at 14 she’s too young to be a bride ? No – he’d happily hand her over to the Capulet Paris. She may be an innocent on the cusp of womanhood but at least she’ll become a woman with the Capulet Paris not the Montague Romeo.
And what of friendship – that great defender of our being ? We choose our friends even if we cannot choose our family or our tribe. In this production Romeo’s friend Mercutio is played by the 76-year-old Derek Jacobi. A fifty year plus age gap. This works brilliantly. Earlier in his season at the Garrick Kenneth Branagh starred in Harlequinade one of the jokes of which is whether an actor who is a Grandfather can play Romeo. The answer is “probably not” – but a two generation gap between Romeo and Mercutio seems here to add something, certainly in Jacobi’s assured hands. Mercutio is not an apologist for either the Montagues or the Capulets. It is he who says and repeats “A plague on both your houses”. That is the wisdom of the old man here not the precocious prescience of youth, and it works.
The setting is post war Italy – the “Dolce Vita” time of the 1950s and, therefore, the same decade in which “West Side Story” was set. The costumes and the dance certainly link back to the Musical. Whilst in “La Dolce Vita” the decadence of the times was endemic here it is more an absence not of sexual morality (on the contrary) but of the moral framework that tolerance and a generosity of spirit can bring. Do we believe Capulet at the end when he says “…brother Montague, give me thy hand.This is my daughter’s jointure, for no more Can I demand.” ? Will the tragedy bring peace to the warring houses or, all too soon, be a reason to return to the battle?
This is a fine production. Well cast and sensitively performed with vitality and pace. More than a fifth of the lines in the play are Romeo’s and only slightly less than this are Juliet’s. These are big parts and the young actors do them justice. We see the story, of course, through their eyes but we also see the pernicious nature of the society in which they live. And the sad reality of the “ancient grudges” is with us as a constant today as it was ever present in Shakespeare.
Review by Paddy Briggs
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre opens with previews from 12th May 2016 and Opening Night on 25th May 2016, booking to 13th August 2016. Romeo and Juliet is the fifth production in the inaugural Plays at the Garrick season. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas on 7th July 2016.
Leading cast include: Lily James (Juliet), Richard Madden (Romeo) and Derek Jacobi (Mercutio) and Meera Syal as the Nurse.
Meera Syal said: “I’m so looking forward to joining such an exciting and prestigious company, and to be performing Shakespeare with them in this, his 400th anniversary year.”
Reuniting the stars of his celebrated film Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford will direct Shakespeareʼs heartbreaking tale of forbidden love. The full cast includes Marisa Berenson (Lady Capulet), Jack Colgrave Hirst (Benvolio), Tom Hanson (Paris), Matthew Hawksley (Anthony), Derek Jacobi (Mercutio), Lily James (Juliet), Taylor James (Prince), Ansu Kabia (Tybalt), Richard Madden (Romeo), Racheal Ofori (Potpan), Nikki Patel (Balthasar), Chris Porter (Lord Montague), Zoë Rainey (Lady Montague), Michael Rouse (Lord Capulet), Meera Syal (The Nurse), Sam Valentine (Friar Laurence) and Kathryn Wilder (Peta/Apothecary).
The cinema broadcast of Romeo and Juliet will be directed by Benjamin Caron, who has also recently directed the broadcast of The Winter’s Tale and collaborated with Kenneth Branagh on the forthcoming series of Wallander, due to be broadcast on the BBC in 2016. John Osborne’s The Entertainer, which will be the final production in the Plays at the Garrick season (20 August – 12 November), will also be broadcast to cinemas in 2016.
Romeo and Juliet
2 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0HH
Booking From: 12th May 2016
Booking Until: 13th August 2016
Audio described performance – Tuesday 7 June 2016 7.30pm
Captioned performance – Tuesday 31 May 2016 7.30pm