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Simon Godwin was preparing a stage adaptation of Romeo & Juliet at the National Theatre when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shuttering theaters and putting the show’s future into question. To salvage the project, the director was tasked with transforming the play, starring Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley, into a film — his first ever. The finished product, PBS’ Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet, is a 90-minute hybrid between stage and screen filmed at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, in what Godwin calls “a really exciting way of capitalizing on the very particular conditions that we were given.”
Godwin spoke to THR about bringing his vision for the stage to the screen and how the production (replete with masks and COVID testing) served as on-the-job training for the director.
What were the logistics of doing a hybrid adaptation, and the challenges that came along with that?
We were filming Romeo & Juliet without ever leaving the theater. There was no Italian sunshine, there were no piazzas, there were no cafes. This was going to be a film rooted in the theater, and so rather than that being a problem, we decided to take the stoic philosophy of “the obstacle is the way”; use what you have, even if what you have is very challenging. We decided to chart the journey of some actors arriving in a closed theater, essentially in their own clothes, doing a kind of table read of Romeo & Juliet, and that as the imagination of those actors took over, we would travel with them into an increasingly cinematic universe.
How did you want to set your adaptation apart?
The particular conditions of the pandemic did a lot of that work for us because for the first time pretty much since Shakespeare, when his theater was closed down due to the plague, we were in a situation where all the theaters were closed, and we were working in very charged conditions. Somehow this story of a terribly dangerous love affair, where touch was in itself lethal for the characters, suddenly also became the case for us.
Why were Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley the right choices as Romeo and Juliet?
I’ve known Josh for a long time, since he was at drama school at the Bristol Old Vic. When he came in to audition to play Romeo — this was before the first series of The Crown had been released — I was thrilled to see him again. He read the verse with such tenderness and vulnerability, but also edge, that I was convinced he would play and bring something very different to Romeo. He has known Jessie Buckley for a very long time, they’re friends in life. I was also convinced that the key to making Romeo & Juliet work was the chemistry between Romeo and Juliet — they had that already for free, as well as Jessie being a very iconoclastic, intense, truthful actress. So between them, I had the strong intuition that they would bring something very tense to the parts.
What was it like to do this without an audience?
We were fortunate enough to [end up with] four weeks of rehearsal and then 17 days of filming. The actors spoke very quietly during the first week of rehearsals, and I was not really sure why until our director of photography explained to me that they weren’t going to be on a stage with an audience, they were going to be front of a camera with microphones, so therefore the need to project was no longer so critical. That was a learning curve. Gradually I understood that on the stage with an audience, you have to move around a lot, so that lots of people in the theater can see your face. Whereas here, the camera likes stillness, intimacy, intensity, so a lot of the work was actually about distilling the blocking and the action into a way that really spoke [to] and made sense in front of a camera. It was learning that new way of seeing that was a big part of the process.
How did you decide on the contemporary clothing and set design?
That sense of the rough aesthetic was absolutely born out of our reality, but also gave us a terrific springboard to leap into other worlds. The other thing that I discovered as we were working was that this experiment, this style, became itself a metaphor for falling in love. I think when you fall in love with somebody, you exist in two worlds — you exist in a world of fantasy, we’re all at the glorious masked ball, imagining the future that we will have with somebody, but you’re also trying to be your most authentic real self. That’s why in the party sequence we cut between the glamorous masked ball and that moment when Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time, as it were, as actors in the rehearsal room. That movement between the poetic and the authentic felt very meaningful for me.
What was the importance of doing this show as a tribute to and celebration of theater during such a hard time for the community?
It was wanting to celebrate the power of the imagination, that theater is an art form that is based around communal storytelling, shared witnessing and make-believe. Rather than trying to create any kind of naturalistic film of Romeo & Juliet, we wanted to create a film that in itself activated that imaginative muscle in everybody watching it, and in doing that made everyone remember the beauty and the importance of theater.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Star-Studded TV Movies
Comedians (Seth Rogen) and Marvel stars (Tessa Thompson and Paul Bettany) stepped onto the small screen this year.
An American Pickle (HBO Max)
Seth Rogen stars as a Jewish immigrant who is preserved for 100 years after falling into a vat of pickles and wakes up in modern-day New York. He unites with his descendant (also Rogen) in this comedy that was originally planned as a Sony feature film. Sony sold it to Warner Bros. in early 2020, and the studio released it on its new streaming service in August. THR‘s review stated that “its soulful sweetness outweighs its flaws.”
Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia (Lifetime)
Orange Is the New Black star Danielle Brooks plays gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in this Lifetime drama, which traces her rise to becoming arguably the best-known gospel singer in the mid-20th century as well as a civil rights activist who sang at the 1963 March on Washington. The project is executive produced by Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, as part of her four-film deal with the network.
Uncle Frank (Amazon)
Written, directed and co-produced by Alan Ball, Uncle Frank stars Paul Bettany as a closeted gay man who goes on a road trip from New York to South Carolina with his niece (Sophia Lillis), sharing with her memories from his past. The 1970s-set drama premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival before it was released in November by Amazon. The supporting cast includes Judy Greer, Steve Zahn and Margo Martindale.
Sylvie’s Love (Amazon Prime Video)
Set in 1950s Harlem, the romantic drama stars Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha as a couple who fall in love over a summer but then part ways, only to reunite years later. The sweeping and stylish romance, directed by Eugene Ashe, was critically acclaimed. “This is a film that celebrates [not only] Black love but love in general,” said Thompson at the film’s L.A. premiere in December.
Unpregnant (HBO Max)
Haley Lu Richardson stars as a pregnant teen who takes her former best friend (Euphoria‘s Barbie Ferreira) on a road trip from Missouri to New Mexico to legally get an abortion without her parents’ consent. Helmed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg, the comedy was released by HBO Max on Sept. 10. THR‘s review said the film is “pushed forward by its winsome lead performances and its familiar but satisfying emotional beats.” — REBECCA FORD
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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