TThe National Theater’s first foray into film-making is a very different proposition than an NT Live recording. It is a production created solely for the screen. A note at the end tells us that it was filmed “in a single stage, for 17 days, during a global pandemic.” But no disclaimer is needed. Serene and adventurous, this Romeo and Juliet is a hybrid wonder and full of clever inventions. Emily Burns’ adaptation is classy and feels slim at times, but that’s a necessary sacrifice for tension and pacing. Director Simon Godwin has given the film a remarkable sense of movement and has played with theatrical artifice deftly.
The opening shot shows the actors gathering on stage for rehearsals, with props and costume rails scattered around them, with the safety curtain in view. Later, rehearsal shots are incorporated into production to remind us of the mechanics of the film, but none of these elements seem elaborate.
One of the most powerful soliloquies, featuring Juliet about to drink the potion that will bring her the appearance of death, features a circle of actors around her on stage. The scene retains all its emotional power and we do not move away from Juliet’s inner state, but it brings us closer. The actors in the fuzzy peripheries appear ghostly, as if she has already entered a different dimension.
There are some built sets (living rooms and bedrooms), but the film looks best when the characters are lit against its black background, evoking the drama of old master paintings. Tim Sidell’s photography looks like a moving painting at times, and Michael Bruce’s music is just as beautiful. Filmed on and around the Lyttelton stage, it has a claustrophobic feel that not only resonates with the confinement, but also captures the suffocating sense of fate approaching young lovers.
She only seems too serene at times, her characters sometimes lacking the messy emotional excesses that lead to the play’s many tragedies. Jessie Buckley, as Juliet, stands out as the heart and soul of the film. Intense and fiery, she is a strong and rebellious daughter who borders on punk, and even when she is at her most vulnerable, she never seems weak. Josh O’Connor steps out of the shadow of Prince Charles from The Crown, the role he’s best known for, but he seems grave and emotionally twisted. But together they gel and their instant love, sparked at a trendy party at the Capulets’, is captivating.
Tamsin Greig’s Lady Capulet is a controlling mother: cold, imperious, and a little too threatening. Other characters, from Fisayo Akinade’s passionate and cheerful Mercutio to Lucian Msamati’s friar, Adrian Lester’s prince and Deborah Findlay’s warm nurse, are beautifully portrayed.
Commercially, the scale and resources of this company can hardly serve as a model for other theaters to follow, but artistically it is simply exquisite. If this is a first foray into a pandemic-resistant revenue stream for the National, it sets the bar high.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism