Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Dominic Dromgoole
For the second in their Shakespeare for Free programme Theatre – Dominic Dromgoole’s macho version of Romeo and Juliet – the Globe is taking us back in time, not just to the late fifteenth / early sixteenth-century for one of their traditionally-staged productions, but also to 2009, two Artistic Directors ago, when the filming of live theatre was in its infancy. This more dangerous version of Verona is simply but effectively shot, yet it sinks the romance between Shakespeare’s famous lovers.
Swaggering teenager Romeo boasts of his latest love to friends Mercutio and Benvolio until at a party he meets the blushing Juliet and rapidly marries her. Drawn from rival families, the lovers must contend with murderous duels, alternative arranged marriages and banishment as fate seeks to separate them. With options running out, a terrible plan is proposed, one that threatens their marital harmony and their lives.
There have been many versions of Romeo and Juliet since 2009, several at the Globe while a proposed production at the National Theatre this summer with Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley may well be postponed. In the meantime, Dromgoole’s production makes much more of the secondary characters than often seen, emphasising the light-hearted but deep friendship among Romeo’s pals, enjoying their youth and freedom before the adult consequences of romance destroy their easy minds. Philip Cumbus as Mercutio and a pre-fame Jack Farthing as Benvolio are infinitely watchable, the warmth of their connection translating to the screen as they play and taunt each other as only good friends can.
Alongside this, Dromgoole suggests a bristling brutality that underscores much of the action, filtering through the Mercutio / Tybalt / Romeo duel as the rapidly cutting camerawork creates a slightly blurred frenzy. But the darkness stretches out to the behaviour of the fractious families as Capulet insists that Juliet marries Paris against her will, while Romeo’s legal banishment emerges from a society built on all kinds of forceable violence.
The cost, however, is the chemistry between the leads, and while individually their interpretations imply the youthful naivety of their characters, the suddenness of their attachment feels less like true love than temporary infatuation and inexperience. It’s almost 35-minutes before they meet, largely focused on Adetomiwa Edun’s laddish and adolescent Romeo who enjoys the concept of his own attraction to women and when he speaks of love, it feels like empty words while his readiness to fight his enemies is dangerous and urgent.
When he meets and woos Ellie Kendrick’s Juliet the shift is not as pronounced as it could be. Edun’s emphatic delivery is met by a girlish and nervy young woman, excited by this rare attention but unsure of her own feeling. Kendrick’s dry Juliet is more a boarding school crush than a grand passion that signals a shift to womanhood. They seem unmatched. Romeo is a man of the world and Edun takes his spirited lover convincingly from hedonist to killer to suicide, a man who follows his heart at every turn, while Juliet’s more compacted restraint, especially in her final moments, seems no match for his unchecked emotion.
The Globe’s respect for the purity of Shakespeare’s text has hardly changed in the last decade and at almost three hours without an interval, the impact of Dromgoole’s production on the screen does start to wane as the excitement of the battling Montagues and Capulets focuses more tightly on the central couple. In these early days of theatre filming, there is a narrative clarity which the cameras notice, but the varying tones of brutality, bawdiness and foreboding sit less easily together.
There’s good use of a choral male choir to signify the change of tone from the nicely staged party scene (with the classic Globe choreographed dance set) to the more emotional pitch of the second part of the play. Many will enjoy the chance to see this purer interpretation, staged in traditional dress and with different if not necessarily complementary leads. And now with two of the six shows released by the Globe, this is also a chance to compare different Artistic Directors and 10 years of theatre filming.
Streaming here until 3 May 2020