sun 21/04/2019

Romeo and Juliet, Garrick Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Romeo and Juliet, Garrick Theatre

Romeo and Juliet, Garrick Theatre

Branagh's la dolce vita is ravishing, but superficial

Never was a story of more woe: Juliet (Lily James) and Romeo (Richard Madden)Johan Persson

Trouble remembering in which country Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers cross paths? Branagh’s panting paean to Fellini will sort you out. Stylish as a monochromatic Vogue spread, and as self-consciously Italian as Bruno Tonioli guzzling lasagne in a gondola, it’s not exactly a triumph of cultural nuance. Capulet is a sharp-suited mafia don who makes an affected entrance sipping espresso, the Prince is a fascist enforcer, al-fresco dining is interrupted by fiery gesticulation, and every loss is met with operatic wailing.

In this context, the high-speed courtship and resulting fallout seem almost run-of-the-mill. The lovers’ tale is given ethnological grounding and wrapped in the historic cycle of violence and grief, but it’s also forced to compete with a plethora of passions. Richard Madden’s Romeo, here a nice chap buffeted by circumstances, is overwhelmed in a production characterised by extremes. Bland earnestness makes him a perfectly likeable boyfriend, downright puzzling as the object of life-or-death devotion, and he alternately swallows and plods through the verse. Lily James (pictured below) works overtime to salvage their romance, though the pair – who also courted in Branagh’s Cinderella – have yet to find persuasive chemistry.

Romeo and Juliet, Garrick TheatreWith Madden leaving a void, James seizes hold of the play and makes it the tale of a girl forced to grow up far too quickly. She begins an impulsive child, turning cartwheels, shifting from foot to foot impatiently while being lectured, and absently rubbing the back of her leg with an unfamiliar high heel, totally unaware of her effect on others. She marvels at the miracle of love, drunk on both romance and illicit Champagne, berates herself for not playing it cool with Romeo by being “more strange”, and gets a fit of hiccups at the mere mention of marriage. But each tragedy strips away a layer of giddy girlishness, and each betrayal builds a steely resolve to control her own fate.

As a dapper, mincing Mercutio, Derek Jacobi makes a five-course meal out of the Queen Mab speech and savours every arch putdown, even punctuating them with an audible “Boom boom”. He prances, he croons, and he offers a riposte to doubts about the casting of a 77-year-old by whipping a sword out of his walking stick. He has an effective sparring partner in Jack Colgrave Hirst’s restless Benvolio (pictured below with Jacobi and Madden), but his relationship to the much younger Romeo is ill-defined, therefore its violent severing lacks impact.

Meera Syal’s bawdy, Brummie Nurse operates in a similarly broad comic vein, though she does hint at the guardian’s fatal cowardice. While Marisa Berenson’s oddly American Lady Capulet seems anaesthetised, Michael Rouse produces a brutish, wild-eyed Capulet battling for control in a world made strange. If at times reminiscent of Branagh’s overwrought Leontes, he does stirringly communicate the fear that, in losing your offspring, you lose your immortal mark upon the earth. Samuel Valentine’s youthful Friar is a wry, compassionate arbiter ruinously burdened by terrible responsibility, Ansu Kabia’s intense Tybalt seethes and plots, Tom Hanson makes an amusingly cocksure Paris, and there’s light relief from Kathryn Wilder’s put-upon Peter. 

Romeo and Juliet, Garrick TheatreChristopher Oram’s marble pillars and gauzy drapes are attractive but fussy, and Patrick Doyle’s score too intrusive – the addition of mournful strings to a key moment in Juliet’s journey particularly egregious. It’s one of several patronising touches from Branagh and co-director Rob Ashford. Accessibility should be applauded, but we don’t need the lovers spotlit when (groan) their eyes meet across a crowded room, and several additions seem too eager to please – a jazzy cabaret number for Juliet, a surfeit of cheaply atmospheric candles, and a Whiplash­-esque drum accompaniment to the movements of “prince of cats” Tybalt, who “keeps time, distance and proportion” during his duelling.

The Fifties setting has potential, with machismo injected into the patriarchal society and high style tempered by an uneasy awareness of recent bloodshed. However, it proves more of an excuse for fabulous fashion than an emotional evacuation of the play. Bellissima, and blessed with a winning star turn, but ultimately rather hollow.

@mkmswain

It's more of an excuse for fabulous fashion than an emotional evacuation of the play

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters