At 30 and 31, respectively, Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley are not the youngest actors to have played Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in Romeo & Juliet. But there’s no doubting the youthful, I-would-die-for-you intensity of their passion in Simon Godwin’s thrilling reimagining of the classic drama. If anything, their maturity gives the heavy veil of melancholy that clouds their joy all the more weight. Originally planned for London’s National Theatre and reconceived for television in ways that ingeniously bridge the distance between stage and screen, this is as much a mesmerizing contemplation of theatrical storytelling as a heart-piercing reflection on divisions of violence and hate.
Airing April 23 in PBS’ Great Performances series (and available to stream for the next four weeks) following its premiere earlier this month on Sky Arts in Britain, the film was shot during lockdown at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre over 17 days, without an audience. Godwin opens with the actors filing into a backstage rehearsal space in contemporary clothing to begin a seated read-through. As O’Connor and Buckley exchange shy smiles, blurring the line between actors and their characters, the first in the production’s series of visceral brawls breaks out, sparked by Juliet’s hotheaded cousin Tybalt (David Judge).
In a device that ups the stakes and accelerates the pace from the start, editor Nick Emerson periodically flashes forward to glimpses of what lies ahead — a masked ball, a clandestine caress, a vial of poison, a death bed. Working from an adaptation by Emily Burns that whittles the action down to a fleet 90 minutes, Godwin and his superlative company of actors inject uncommon urgency into the play, along with stirring depth of feeling.
Tim Sidell’s camerawork, too, is remarkable at evoking both the simmering hostility of Verona’s feuding families and the raw emotion of their forbidden lovers. Unconventionally angled close-ups bring dangerous intimacy and tactile sensuality to their physical union, and composer Michael Bruce’s surging strings turn up the heat between them. The lustrous visuals and enveloping atmosphere would be even more impressive on a big screen.
For many of us, our first encounter with Romeo and Juliet was a film version shown in high school English class. The most notable of them up to now have been Franco Zeffirelli’s Oscar-winning 1968 adaptation, a faithful yet vigorous period piece with tender youths Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the lead roles; and Baz Luhrmann’s wildly flamboyant, massively divisive 1996 pop-punk update, with the angelic pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
This latest retelling is more modest in scale than either of those predecessors. But it’s easy to imagine it becoming the go-to for teachers looking to give their students the pared-down essence of the play in a short, sharp jolt of exquisite poetry, head-spinning romance and devastating sorrow.
The modernity of the interpretation comes not from the kind of MTV-era flashiness that Luhrmann employed — the thumping basslines of electronic dance music at the Capulets’ ball notwithstanding — but from an achingly sensitive reading of the text plugged into our current moment. There are no intrusive pandemic references, but at a time when we’ve spent the past year in semi-isolation, fearful of human touch, the resonance creeps up on you.
That begins with the casting. As the closed-off young Yorkshire farmer in God’s Own Country and the emotionally stunted Prince Charles on The Crown, O’Connor has shown his skill at illuminating the brooding interiority of his characters. We see shades of that here as Romeo mopes in the opening scene over his unrequited love for Rosaline. But he’s galvanized, zapped back to life, the moment he spots Juliet crooning like a siren across a crowded room at the ball.
Their chemistry is instantaneous, with their first exchange delivered in whispered asides, half-hidden in the smoky lighting as Juliet is presented by her parents to Paris (Alex Mugnaioni), the nobleman they have chosen for her to marry. Sidell’s camera picks up the touch of Romeo and Juliet’s fingers with what feels like an electric charge. Hands are featured in shot after shot, becoming as expressive as faces, notably in a later scene where they tear at each other’s clothes with clumsy hunger and impatience. In one especially lovely touch, Emerson weaves in footage of Buckley and O’Connor chasing each other around the rehearsal space, their playfulness at odds with the flashes of their tragic destiny.
Buckley, the talented Irish actress who was a live-wire revelation in Wild Rose and the enigmatic anchor in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, brings an intensity to match O’Connor’s. But her Juliet is no flighty lovebird. She’s strong-willed, intelligent, even hesitant as she gives herself over to love, as if at the same time gnawed by an inkling of the suffering to come. Her ecstatic words during the balcony scene, with Romeo smiling in sweet embarrassment as he overhears her rhapsodizing, are the stuff of soaring romance. Yet the encroaching sadness is never far off, as evidenced by the startling cut to Friar Laurence (Lucian Msamati) mixing a deadly poison.
When they are secretly married in the Friar’s cell in a gorgeous scene awash in candlelight, Godwin cross-cuts to Romeo’s friends Mercutio (Fisayo Akinade) and Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) locked in a deep kiss. This is by no means the first time Mercutio has been depicted as gay, but usually he’s quietly pining for Romeo. Giving him a full-fledged love of his own makes his death by Tybalt’s sword cut deeper, adding an especially bitter sting to his curse: “A plague on both your houses.”
In a production that deftly underlines the theatricality of the piece while simultaneously conjuring a driving, cinematic fluidity, moments of formal stagecraft are used for maximum impact. Suspense and an almost unbearable sense of dread accompany Juliet, for instance, as she staggers from her austere room to a fully dressed set with a bed at its center, surrounded by all the other characters, living and dead. They look on in silence as she voices her apprehension about taking the sleeping potion and waking in the family tomb. When she works up the resolve to drink it, a kind of lucid madness seems to overcome her as she toasts Romeo with tears streaming down her face.
Godwin uses the various spaces of the Lyttelton with great inventiveness. When Romeo is banished from Verona by the Prince (Adrian Lester) after he kills Tybalt in retaliation for Mercutio’s death, the theater’s iron safety curtain functions effectively as the city walls. Romeo endures his anguished exile in the cavernous bowels of the building. When Benvolio, still mourning his own love, seeks him out to deliver the news of Juliet’s apparent death, Romeo is ripped apart. Each man’s grief is echoed in the other’s in a tremendously moving scene that catapults the play breathlessly forward to its shattering conclusion.
Godwin has made bold choices throughout, including shifting the household power away from Juliet’s father to her mother, Lady Capulet, played with chilly authority by Tamsin Greig. Her seething command as she threatens to disown Juliet later resonates in moving counterpoint to her emotional collapse when she cradles what she believes to be her daughter’s corpse in her arms.
The Capulets’ bougie midcentury-modern living room aside, Soutra Gilmour’s design elements give the clever illusion of having raided the theater’s set, costume and props departments for whatever adaptable pieces happened to be available. The ball is staged simply in a vast space with a handful of low-hanging chandeliers amid the pulsating lights and music; sword fights are conducted with sticks; the balcony scene takes place under a huge projected moon. Despite its relative simplicity, however, the production is fully immersive, transporting, its emotional power fueled by the lyrical beauty of the language and the unfaltering command of a first-rate cast.
This is worlds away from the pallid experience of so much virtual theater seen over the past year since stages went dark for lockdown. It’s a beguiling hybrid experiment in which a four century-old drama appears before our very eyes to dismantle and reassemble itself spontaneously as a living, breathing, timeless love story destroyed by senseless hatred.
Production companies: National Theatre, in association with Sabel Productions, Cuba Pictures
Airs: PBS, Sky Arts
Cast: Josh O’Connor, Jessie Buckley, Tamsin Greig, Deborah Findlay, Adrian Lester, Fisayo Akinade, Shubham Saraf, Lucian Msamati, David Judge, Alex Mugnaioni, Ellis Howard, Colin Tierney, Ella Dacres
Director: Simon Godwin
Playwright: William Shakespeare, adapted by Emily Burns
Producer: David Sabel
Executive producers: Rufus Norris, Dixie Linder, Christine Schwarzman, Darren Johnston
Director of photography: Tim Sidell
Production and costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Music: Michael Bruce
Editor: Nick Emerson
Casting: Alastair Coomer, Bryony Jarvis-Taylor