It’s being touted as the linchpin of the Branagh Theatre season at the Garrick, but aren’t we sick of Romeo and Juliet by now? There must be over 100 performances a year in London alone, so what does this have to offer that’s so special? Well, allow me to introduce Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford, together again after 2015’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a classier, flashier, more tongue-in-cheek version than you’d be used to, with some pitch-perfect casting to boot.
You already know the story – “two households”, and the rest – so what do Branagh and Ashford bring to this Romeo and Juliet that’s new? With community and family playing such a big role in the story, it’s great to see Verona and its denizens being treated with some personality. Set within piazza columns, the super stylish 1950s suits and skirts walk by, sipping espressos as they pass. Attractive costuming can be so overlooked, so let’s throw a shout out to Christopher Oram and his fine, fine work. Southern European blood runs hot throughout Verona; I love the idea that any of the residents, aside from Samuel Valentine’s hilarious world-weary Friar, is just on the cusp of bubbling over into fiery, burning anger or passion. It speaks volumes as to how the Capulet/Montague feud began, and provides great justification for the actions of Romeo, Tybalt et al. down the way. The humour is also very prominent in this adaptation, especially through lesser-known characters such as Kathryn Wilder’s Peter. The balcony scene in particular nears Shakespeare in Love levels of chuckles, and I for one am a big fan. It’s great for an unusual spark to reinvent a scene we’ve seen so many times.
As our star-crossed lovers, Lily James and Richard Madden (reuniting from Branagh’s Cinderella), display wonderful chemistry, and a rather different kind of relationship than we’re used to – they’re pretty much in each other’s arms as soon as they lock eyes. Madden’s handsomeness only adds to his charm, even if the language trips him up later on, but it’s James who really taps into the teenage insecurity of Juliet, swigging champagne on the balcony and exploding into hiccups before she’s married. She’s singing to her father, but upon seeing her beau for the first time James lets her voice quiver for a second. It’s funny, touching and adorable all at once.
Derek Jacobi is as majestic and magnetic as you would expect from Mercutio, but this ageing party boy is also very sweet. Jacobi’s age lends great pathos to his “Queen Mab,” and his flamboyant entrance is judged ever so well. Jacobi smartly underplays his final moments, but it may disappoint those waiting for one of the titans of the Shakespearean world to deliver his infamous speech. Meera Syal comes close to stealing the show. She’s as funny a Nurse as there’s ever been, and she’s not afraid to tap into her own Italian desires at times either. Michael Rouse as Lord Capulet is a bit of a Marmite performance. I can see many loving the animalistic, wild nature of his breakdowns, but I found myself questioning the actor more than the character, especially when he starts throwing all of his family members to the floor. He’s a bit much.
It’s not going to be for everyone (Shakespeare purists will have a field day), but there is much to be enjoyed in Branagh and Ashford’s modernised tragedy. Stylistically it’s gorgeous, if tonally it can jump around a bit too much. I love the humour though, and the four headline names are as excellent as you’d expect them to be. Clearly there’s life in the old dog yet.
Romeo and Juliet is playing at the Garrick Theatre until 13 August. For more information see the Branagh Theatre website. Photo: Johan Persson