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Friday, July 08, 2016

Romeo & Juliet (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company)

Regular readers of this blog know that I will see just about any production of Romeo and Juliet. It's not my favorite Shakespearean play, but because I was in it way back in college I'm always up for seeing what approach a director takes. I've seen many film productions and I don't know how many stage adaptations--maybe five or six, ranging from Broadway to amateur.

Last night I had a chance to see Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford's take on the play, broadcast to cinemas live from the Garrick Theater in London (I doubt it was live--since London is about eight hours ahead of my time it would have been 3:30 in the morning). But it was certainly a film of a live production, with an audience and everything. Interestingly, the cinematic presentation was in crisp black and white, to go with Branagh's slant--this Romeo and Juliet is very Italian, but set in post-war Italy, and modeled after the films of the period, such as by Fellini and Antonioni.

I approve of that approach, but it was kind of muted because he uses nothing but English actors. They use occasional Italian and dress in period clothing, but are thoroughly British. For example, playing Lord Capulet is Michael Rouse, who at one point wears a sleeveless t-shirt (what is uncomfortably sometimes referred to as a "wife-beater," a staple of Italian men's wardrobes), but he looks no more Italian than a member of the House of Windsor. The only character looking vaguely Italian is the Nurse, played in fiery fashion by Meera Syal.

That aside, the production is mostly good, but one casting error kept it from being excellent. I would like to applaud Lily James as Juliet. Known to audiences from Downton Abbey and Branagh's film of Cinderella, she gives Juliet a backbone and lots of vim and vigor. Some Juliets are too simpering, but James plays her as if she were Rey in the latest Star Wars film (she should play her sister in the next film). She is of course beautiful, but nobody's fool.

Unfortunately, Richard Madden as Romeo was no match for her. Before the play Branagh announced that Madden was dealing with a badly hurt ankle, so maybe that had something to do with it, but he seemed distracted and not particularly interested in what was going on. He and James had no chemistry, and he gave little passion to his role. He played opposite her in Cinderella, and is Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, but here he looked like the second lead in a sit-com. It didn't help that in the final scenes he was wearing a windbreaker.

The most notable casting was Derek Jacobi, the venerable Shakespearean actor, as Mercutio. That role is usually played as a contemporary of Romeo's, but Jacobi is 77 years old. Branagh, in some commentary before the film began, said he got the idea from a description of a down and out Oscar Wilde. The casting worked well, as Mercutio, deep down a sad man, seems even more pathetic by hanging out with much younger men. The only place it doesn't work is with his fight with Tybalt, which seems pretty foolhardy.

The staging is fast and furious. Some scenes are cut, of course, but some that are usually cut are kept in, such as Paris' death (I'm always for keeping it in, because he's so smug), but the Friar's scene with Juliet in the vault is cut (and his monologue explaining what he did is kept in) and the apothecary scene is not there, so we don't know how Romeo got the poison. The opening fight scene is very short, as are most of the fights. But Romeo's revenge against Tybalt is staged with violent gusto.

Some of the other cast members worth noting--Lady Capulet is an unrecognizable Marisa Berenson (she was the next big thing back in the early '70s when she made Barry Lyndon), and special plaudits to Kathryn Wilder as Peter. When we did Romeo and Juliet back in the day, we also had the servant played by a woman who did a great job playing dim, and Wilder does that hear. Bravo!

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