The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s year-long season at the Garrick continues with Romeo and Juliet, co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, and featuring Downton Abbey’s Lily James and Games of Thrones’s Richard Madden as the star-crossed lovers. It’s a sort of spin-off of Branagh’s schmaltzy but lucrative Disney film Cinderella from last year, which Ashford choreographed and which also starred James and Madden in a pairing that turns out far more happily.
As a straightforward, ill-fated love story, there is not much complexity of characterisation in Romeo and Juliet. Unlike Shakespeare’s mature tragedies where the protagonists’ flawed personalities contribute to their downfall, Romeo and Juliet are simply victims of circumstances beyond their control, sacrificed to their families’ enmity; their misfortune is simply that one happens to be a Montague, and the other a Capulet. The tragedy lies in the bloom of youthful love nipped in the bud.
For a play so dependent on hot-blooded passions, whether sexual love or violent feuding, there is not enough raw intensity in this traditional, not to say old-fashioned, production set in 1950s ‘La Dolce Vita’ Italy. It’s stylish and pacey but there seems to be little rationale behind the setting other than it being so easy on the eye, even if we do see the moral ugliness underlying the hedonistic glamour.
The opening confrontation between members of the Montague and Capulet clans in Verona’s town square is slickly staged with the cast striking poses as if snapped by paparazzi, but there is no sense of real danger in the air. The nightclubbing Capulets’ masked ball is sexy enough, but the euphoric balcony scene is underwhelming, with Juliet more or less on the same stage level as Romeo rather than high above him, and the double-suicide vault conclusion does not truly move.
Designer Christopher Oram’s stone piazza with descending pillars perhaps suggests the historical roots of an ancient quarrel, while his chic costumes are Felliniesque with characters sometimes seeming to parade in a fashion show. Patrick Doyle’s busy score moves from sultry jazz to electronic disco beats and orchestral-style rhapsody, though the sound of a tolling church bell hits the most atmospheric note.
Although there is a danger that teenage actors playing the leads will not be able to handle Shakespeare’s blank verse, there is more of a danger that older actors will fail to convince in the youthful roles. Undeniably a good-looking romantic couple, James and Madden share a fair amount of chemistry between them, but both in their late twenties they are a bit too mature to portray the rush of adolescent first love. However, James does project much more passion in Juliet’s tremulous excitement and headstrong impetuousness than the athletically virile but emotionally flat Madden who conveys little of Romeo’s dreamy ardour.
Derek Jacobi (also in Cinderella!), now pushing eighty, must be the oldest ever professional Mercutio. As one our great Shakespeareans, he delivers the verse beautifully, especially the Queen Mab speech, as a dapper veteran swinger with a hip shuffle and a twirling walking cane (containing a swordstick), but when he squares up to the thrusting, aggressive Tybalt (Ansu Kabia) the disconnect is absurd and there is no sense of the potential of a young life cruelly cut short.
Samuel Valentine’s younger-than-usual Friar Laurence is a well-meaning but naïve peacemaker, while as the Nurse Meera Syal is a mixture of comic garrulousness and warm protectiveness. Michael Rouse’s autocratic mobster Capulet is way over the top, with Marisa Berenson’s coldly remote Lady Capulet complicit in her daughter’s arranged/forced marriage to Tom Hanson’s clumsily courting Paris.
Branagh and Ashford’s lacklustre production falls short of their impressive season-opener The Winter’s Tale, and is nowhere near as powerful as their 2014 Manchester International Festival collaboration on Macbeth, where there was much more ‘mad blood stirring’.
Romeo and Juliet is on until 13th August 2016. Click here for more information.