“filmed on a single stage, over seventeen days, during a global pandemic”

The theatre has been one of the hardest-hit parts of the arts sector in the last year, due to the live experience being so integral to defining what theatre is. The National Theatre has expanded its already successful NT Live programme, giving even more opportunities to worldwide audiences to experience filmed versions of plays from the past few years. But what they decided to do with what should have been a new theatre production of Romeo and Juliet is entirely unique. Director Simon Godwin and the NT team decided to forge ahead, with the same cast and crew (but no audience) and make a film – using both the NT stage and the backstage rehearsal spaces. This play-film hybrid is different again from say, the Hamilfilm released last year, because the performances are entirely pitched to the camera, there are a lot of cuts between scenes in different spaces, there’s a use of montage and a freedom to use different rooms – nooks and crannies that wouldn’t usually be visible to a theatre audience.

It is clear that we are getting a glimpse ‘behind the curtain’ from the start, when we see the actors arriving into a rehearsal space, in what appears to be their own clothes and sit in a square of chairs for the prologue (delivered by Lucian Msamati’s Friar Lawrence). The actor-to-character lines start to blur when we see Josh O’Connor’s Romeo shyly but flirtatiously smile across the space at Jessie Buckley’s Juliet. With Friar Lawrence declaration of “…is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage” (but will actually turn out to be an extremely breezy ninety minutes), we see a montage of images from the rest of the film – flashes of blood, violence and tragedy. All of this adds to the self-aware feel of the entire thing, there is no hiding of the fact that “we are actors telling you this story and we all know what is about to unfold.”

The opening scenes continue in this rehearsal space and it’s not until the Capulet’s Ball starts that the action moves through the fire curtain to the ‘proper’ stage. There is now the sense that the actors are donning costumes – as well as the iconic masks (of course) and again, the staging is being used purposefully – the ball is a kind of ‘performance’ for many of the characters, especially those trying to hide their identities. We get a brief treat of Jessie Buckley singing (a kind of choral wailing?) at the start of the party scene, but the music is mostly more modern and upbeat, as befits a party. This scene is the first of many brilliant uses of lighting, which is a real highlight throughout. Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting (and of course, first kiss) is perhaps the best use of the mainstage/backstage dichotomy that Godwin establishes. It’s as if the backstage action is revealing their true inner thoughts and feelings – the excitement and turmoil of first love. We intercut between these public and private spaces – with Romeo chasing a headscarf-wearing Juliet through racks of costumes and masks.

The casting and acting are two of the main strengths of this production, of course. It is necessary to get over the hump that two thirty-year-olds are playing the teenage Romeo and Juliet, but with actors of the calibre of O’Connor and Buckley, it’s easy to forgive. O’Connor has been receiving Golden Globes and other baubles recently (and deservedly) for his portrayal of Prince Charles in The Crown, which could see him achieving another level of stardom. Buckley was in one of the best films of last year (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and she’s been gaining roles worthy of her talent for a few years now (eg. Beast, Wild Rose). While the diversity in the casting is not a new thing in the world of theatre, what does set this production apart is that the actors get to use their own regional accents – so Buckley’s Irish, as well as Tybalt’s and Sampson’s Scouse means that we’re hearing Shakespeare not just through the usual received pronunciations. The other interesting choice is that the great Tamsin Greig’s Lady Capulet has been given Lord Capulet’s lines and vice-versa. Greig has a particularly light, girlish voice, which makes the “hang, beg, starve, die in the streets” scene more insidious and sinister than having a burly man barking it in Juliet’s face.

Because of the frequent use of close-ups (and sometimes extreme close-ups), the acting can be much more quiet and subtle compared to what we expect from traditional theatre acting (acting for a camera vs a theatre audience are very different disciplines, but this does not mean that one is worse than the other, of course). We hear this in O’Connor’s delivery, especially, from his very first lines, the softly dreamy ruminations of a young man in love. The close-ups also mean that the star-crossed lovers can whispers epithets to one another, instead of declaring them to the heavens, which makes for a different spin again, on how we’re used to this play being presented. Buckley’s strongest scene is probably the one where she tells the Nurse (Deborah Findlay) that she will marry Paris (Alex Mugnaioni), when she knows (and we know) that she is in fact plotting something quite different.

The supporting cast rises to meet the central two performances. It’s so exciting to see Fisayo Akinade (from the brilliant Cucumber and Banana) as Mercutio and his scenes with Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) are tender and loving, as well as amusing (being drunk after the party) and of course, violent and tumultuous. Lucian Msamati has some wonderful scenes – especially the one with a sobbing Romeo, after he learns of his banishment. The lighting in Friar Lawrence’s cell is so well done, mostly candlelight against a black background (which also makes for a stunning wedding scene). When Romeo is banished to Mantua, the use of a sparse space with a singular shaft of high, horizontal light is also incredibly effective. The music is lovely and makes for a fitting backdrop to the sex scene, which is brief, but again, montage-like in the way you’d expect a film sex scene to be presented.

Romeo & Juliet is a unique event that should appeal to fans of theatre and film alike. Although I can struggle with watching filmed theatre (despite loving the live experience), this is totally different, as this has been specifically and intentionally reworked from being intended for a theatre audience to being pitched for a film audience. The acting has been carefully adjusted and calibrated, the staging has been thoughtfully reworked and a very special experience has been created that would not exist if it had not been for these unprecedented circumstances. The interplay between actors and characters, mainstage and backstage is so interesting to explore, you will no doubt be swept along – the only downside is the short running time, as parting is such sweet sorrow…

Rating: ★★★★

National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet premiered on Sky Arts in the UK on Sunday 4 April 2021 and as well as Easter Sunday, the film will now also be shown on Easter Monday and Thursday 8 April (also on Sky Arts).

The film will air in the US on Friday, April 23 2021 at 9pm on PBS, pbs.org/gperf and the PBS Video app.