Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick

I was excited to see a Kenneth Branagh production at the Garrick Theatre, especially a Shakespearean classic like Romeo and Juliet. The grand circle bar is beautiful, with the balcony outside welcome respite in the warm, and very atmospheric. The theatre seats though are painfully creaky! dotting the performance with the occasional groan from neighbours shifting in their seats.

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Lily James and Richard Madden were billed to play the star crossed lovers, fresh from their fairy tale happy ever after in the recent film version of Cinderella, also directed by Branagh. As well as her turn as peasant girl to princess in beautiful Dior blue, I’d also admired Lily James (previously known as fun-loving affectionate Rose in Downton Abbey) in her leading role as heroine Natasha in the BBC’s War and Peace adaptation. The performance I saw was missing Richard Madden – otherwise known as Game Of Thrones’s Robb Stark – with Freddie Fox filling in and taking on the fated name of Montague.

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Lily James is the absolute highlight for me, she lives the lines – the anguish and excitement of teenage love made real in her breath. There is a humour and touching affection to her Juliet – cartwheeling off stage in opening scenes of delight, and later sneaking a bottle of wine out on to the balcony beneath her nightdress to lament wherefore Romeo be her lover’s name. Admittedly the balcony is stunted in growth, a few baby steps above the ground, but the pair work well with what they have. Comic genius Meera Syal is predictably a treat as the Nurse, taking a shine to the friar (Matthew Hawksley) and carelessly encouraging Juliet to transfer her affections to parent-approved Paris. Derek Jacobi (also plucked from Cinderella – the king) is a lot of fun as garrulous, silver-haired Mercutio, a fan of dancing and a comic highlight. There is a definite effort to get in to the Italian spirit of things (too much at points). Mostly though it feels natural – Mercutio and the others al fresco drinking on a Verona terrace, Lord Capulet (Michael Rouse) sipping on an espresso as he receives the news that his daughter will not marry Paris. In fact James’s scene with Rouse in his white vest, demanding with frightening and aggressive force that she marry Paris, has harrowing power. The music of heartbroken violins is just a little too overwhelmingly loud though at points, like Juliet’s poison scene. As the friar’s poison takes effect James pulls down the bed curtain as she falls, and it swathes her like bridal clothes . Later as she is taken away it’s left on the floor like a ruined veil, her now distraught father carrying his daughter’s quiet body into church.

Fox is soon to appear in Stoppard’s Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory. His Romeo though, feels a bit watery somehow, his passion diluted into something you can take or leave. He is much more convincing as a young teenage boy, pining after Rosalind, than as the serious lover driven to tragedy.

Christopher Oram’s set eliminates any possibility of enjoying the masked revels with no sense of consequence. The merriment of the masked ball is staged amongst the dim columns and yellow stone of the tomb, overcast with the tragic end from the beginning. The light immediately picks out both Romeo and Juliet, as bright angels, and at once it feels like a question of waiting for the tragedy to start. The stage allows no separation from what has come before, so entwined are the tragedies with for example the hushed secret wedding, which happens in a far corner beside one of the columns. It makes me think that whilst Romeo and Juliet is much quoted as the ideal of love, we are rarely if ever allowed to bask in any straightforward sugary romance. Romeo’s proposal of marriage comes via Juliet’s nurse and requires a payoff to gain her ‘recommendation’. The gloomy reminder from the beginning means that somehow you can never fully lose yourself in the lyricism of Shakespeare s love poetry.

“When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

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