‘Romeo and Juliet’ (2021) review – Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy is painfully predetermined


We all know where it’s going, and yet, in the National Theatre’s staging of Romeo and Juliet as an unconventional ‘film-play’, we also don’t. That’s kind of what makes the 100-minute movie so remarkable.

Originally due to be performed in the Olivier in summer last year, the production has since been converted into a short film played out on the Lyttelton, and directed by Twelfth Night and Anthony and Cleopatra‘s Simon Godwin. It was, as text during the end credits makes astonishingly clear, filmed in an empty theatre, over 17 days, during a global pandemic. Redundant phrases aside (a pandemic is often global), it almost sounds impossible when you watch the film itself. So intimate and so lively with its fight scenes, choreography and close-ups, it’s art which comes packed with an energy and drive – something which, for the longest time, the coronavirus pandemic had almost completely extinguished.

Opening with the closing of metal doors at the front of the Lyttelton, the device forms a striking barrier to the play’s key moments: jubilation separated from solitude, life separated from death, Romeo separated from Verona, and the Friar blocked from delivering truth to a Romeo deceived by Juliet’s faked demise. It further cements the point that everything in Shakespeare’s tragic play is inevitable and set in stone – or rather, metal.

The company are gathered in a curved seating plan, as Lucian Msamati (His Dark Materials, Master Harold… and The Boys) lays out the tale. To them, the events which are about to unfold are a foregone conclusion, and we also see that in the lovers’ visions of their futures. Everything builds up to their untimely deaths.

Building up being an appropriate phrase to use as the characters develop in the most poetic fashion. Notice how a brooding Romeo (The Crown‘s Josh O’Connor) begins cloaked in black, yet after meeting his Capulet partner, the Montague’s clothing quickly becomes white. Call it him becoming a ghostly figure, or him being purified with love, it’s impressive symbolism from designer Soutra Gilmour. A similar thing happens too with Juliet, as what begins with a single bed at the start expands into a sea blue bedroom. Mr Montague certainly gives Ms Capulet’s life a lot more colour, as the stunning candlelit wedding scene proves.

Away from the leading couple, Fisayo Akinade (The AntipodesBarber Shop Chronicles) gives a lyrical free flowing recital of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, Msamati plays the Friar with his trademark authoritative demeanour, and perhaps the most striking is Tamsin Greig (Friday Night DinnerTwelfth Night) with her performance as Lady Capulet. Against the backdrop of the vibrant and grandiose film, Greig’s calm and softly spoken threats are so brilliantly ominous.

It is, perhaps quite literally, a necessary evil, as it makes the fate befalling the star-crossed lovers all the more unavoidable, and all the more tragic. For a Shakespearean play which has been done to death (pun unfortunately intended), establishing genuine dread for the Bard’s protagonists is quite the formidable feat.

Romeo and Juliet is repeated at 10pm tonight on Sky Arts, before its US premiere on PBS on 23 April.

Photos: Rob Youngson.

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