London’s National Theatre delivers an original film for television, a glossed and stylised theatrical adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Romeo & Juliet.
The Royal National Theatre (NT) in London has been gracing the stage for years with unique and beautifully captivating plays and performances. From Jean Racine’s Phedre with Helen Mirren to One Man, Two Guvnors with James Corden.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been adapted thousands of times, going way back to Stuart Blackton in 1908 to one of its most famous renditions in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This one is quite different; it was initially planned to be a live stage revival of the famous play, but the plans were changed when the pandemic hit. NT then decided to reunite the cast for seventeen days to film the play on-location and on-stage with Simon Godwin (who has helmed several plays for NT like Hamlet, Anthony & Cleopatra, and Richard II) to direct. The final product being a stage-on-screen cinematic delicacy.
This contemporary retelling of the famous doomed love story is set in modern-day Italy. Two young lovers, Romeo (Josh O’Connor) and Juliet (Jessie Buckley), aspire to rise above the violent and hate-filled world they live in, a world where the Montagues loathe the Capulets and are always on the brink of a fight. A world where Catholic and opposed values conflict, physically and symbolically.
The film is structured in combination with the setting and atmosphere, reminiscent of Pedro Almodóvar’s recent short film, The Human Voice. It goes through the famous Lyttleton Theatre’s staging and constructs a world of its own like Almodóvar did with the small-scale stage. You take a tour all around the beautiful setting with well-designed props, showing you every single inch, and using all of it. From the glowing of a hundred candles to highlight the warmth of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship to the prop full moon that delivers us the famous balcony scene, this adaptation truly shines, even in the dreariest moments.
Although it has incredible staging, a dedicated director, and a legendary scripture, it is the outstanding performances by the leads who carry this film. They deliver their Shakespearian lines with skill and intensity. O’Connor and Buckley have a palpable chemistry that flutters with such elegance that it can be perceived gracefully through the screen. These performances are not as showy as one might anticipate but are balanced with subtlety and poignance, with a delicate undertone. Let us not forget about the supporting cast, where Tamsin Greig (as the piercing and controlling Lady Capulet) and Lucian Msamati (as Friar) get their moments to shine as well.
One of the best aspects of the film that make other adaptations of Romeo and Juliet suffer is that it does not feel cliche or forced. You feel the impact, and thanks to the performances, you get attached. It is the power of dialogue, the gravitas of the structure, and the “oomph” of the characters that get the best out of this adaptation. These elements are what make films and stage plays so captivating and beguiling.
Romeo & Juliet is filled with intimacy while being raw and powerful. Concocted with care and passion for the adapted material, Simon Godwin delivers a brilliant exhibit of the Shakespearian tragedy.
This is the second time Jessie Buckley has played Juliet on screen, having appeared in the short film The Complete Walk: Romeo and Juliet (2016), part of the Shakespeare Lives program celebrating the author’s 400th anniversary.