Directors: Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford
Reviewer: Niall Harman
Harlequinade, a previous production in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s ‘Plays at the Garrick’ season saw two over-the-hill actors attempt to play Romeo and Juliet, with bizarre wigs and hilarious consequences. Once again, the actors in this revival are too old for the parts, something that befalls almost every retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Swapping the fairytale happy-ever-after for star-crossed lovers,Cinderella stars Lily James and Richard Madden are both charming, charismatic and convincing enough to overcome this issue.
James is wonderful as Juliet, full of the giddiness of first love without ever becoming annoying, and is believably infatuated with Madden’s Romeo. She particularly comes into her own in the scene where she takes the sleeping potion as a large white curtain falls over her lifeless body, and is devastating in the final act. Madden is a solid Romeo, yet somewhat lacks the passion and anger the part requires. The pair is particularly effective in a perfectly staged balcony scene (even if the balcony in Christopher Oram’s set sits far too low on the stage) that sees Juliet swigging from a wine bottle and Shakespeare’s iconic lines played for maximum comic effect.
The decision to cast 77-year-old Derek Jacobi as Romeo’s dear friend Mercutio is a surprising one, but what is unsurprising is that Jacobi more than delivers the goods. It is a joy to hear him speak Shakespeare’s verse, and he makes a memorable entrance lithely dancing onto the stage. While his Mercutio is not quite a father figure, he has the air of a favourite protective uncle, and his age makes his threats to Tybalt and their ensuing argument seem necessarily ridiculous. His ‘a plague o’ both your houses’ speech is masterfully done. There is a great comic performance from Meera Syal as Juliet’s Nurse, which makes her mourning later in the play all the more devastating. A weak link in the cast is Marisa Berenson as Lady Capulet, who is very good at weeping over dead bodies (a must for this role), but delivers her lines heavy-handedly and with little conviction.
Branagh and Ashford relocate the text to the Verona of the 1950s, with an obvious nod to the work of Federico Fellini. The costumes (courtesy of the Christopher Oram) are dominated by sunglasses, full skirts and tailored grey suits, with the characters repeatedly sipping expresso. Oram’s set is an imposing marble piazza, large pillars fly in an out to change scenes as there is little in the way of props. The directors have pushed for a very Italianate setting; booming church bells ring out, angry Italian can often be heard in the scene changes and James has swapped her blonde locks for a dark wig. This, coupled with Howard Hudson’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound, creates a decidedly warm atmosphere.
All in all, it is what one would expect from a revival of Shakespeare’s much performed and much-studied tragedy by this company. While some decisions, such as the heavy thump of house music and Juliet’s unnecessary singing at the Capulets’ ball do not sit particularly well with the overall tone, it is hard not to be won over by this classy and warm-hearted production.
Runs until 13 August 2016 | Image:Johan Persson