(Garrick Theatre, directed by Kenneth Branagh, 28 July 2016)
In a moment of extreme spontaneity, I decided on Thursday afternoon that I was going to the theatre that evening. The spur to action was the discovery of a cheap seat in the Dress Circle for Romeo and Juliet, which I very much wanted to see as I’ve managed to miss all of the other plays that Kenneth Branagh has directed as part of his artistic residence. This, would you believe it, was the very first time I’ve ever seen Romeo and Juliet on stage and it was an excellent production with which to start. Sophisticated and brooding, firmly anchored in its Italian setting, it was blessed with a host of fine performances.
I hardly think I need to give a plot summary for Romeo and Juliet, so I’ll swing straight into the action. Branagh’s production is almost monochrome (and, when broadcast in cinemas, it’s filmed in black and white) and the staging is very simple: a square, surrounded by steps and columns, which becomes a piazza, the reception hall of the Capulet mansion, a courtyard or a pillared church. The architecture is cold and angular, a remnant of Mussolini’s 1930s, perhaps, while the Italians who bustle or saunter through the square or meet for espresso are dressed in 1950s fashion. The brawl between the two retainers escalates from a squabble between two women, one from each house, over who was the first to grab a café table. Inevitably, the Prince becomes a carabiniero chief, with a peaked cap and a grey stripe down the side of his trousers.
Branagh’s evocation of the Italian setting goes beyond mere visuals. When they aren’t speaking Shakespeare’s English, the cast speak Italian, jostling and arguing: the Nurse babbles in comforting Italian to Juliet, and Juliet herself enters the Capulet party to dedicate a song to ‘mio babbo‘. At first I thought I wasn’t going to like this, because it felt as if it would muddy the waters, but it grew on me tremendously. By the end I loved the idea, which helped to fix the scene so vividly and to place us right away in the noisy, crowded Veronese streets, where sleek gang lords watch every step, passionate temperaments can flare up in a moment and violence is only a thought away. It was well-judged indeed. The same goes for the sparing but effective use of music.
Obviously, if anyone can gather a mouth-watering cast, it’s Kenneth Branagh. His Juliet is Lily James, most famous internationally for her recent role as the eponymous kitchen girl in Disney’s live-action Cinderella, but perhaps better known to British audiences for her turns as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey and Natasha in the BBC’s admirable War and Peace. Her sweetness and girlishness can divide opinions, but she made a splendid Juliet. To my delight she pulled the character up by the bootstraps and gave her an energy I haven’t seen in filmed versions. This Juliet looks like a credible teenager, skittering around in exasperation when her Nurse fails to deliver Romeo’s message, by turns earnest and kittenish. There was slightly too much crumpling of material – her pyjama top; her dress – as an expression of her uncertainty and anxiety, but generally speaking I think she’s my favourite Juliet so far. Claire Danes didn’t have quite this hybrid energy, half-child, half-woman; Olivia Hussey didn’t have the clever spark of brightness. James takes back Juliet’s autonomy and turns her into something more than a pretty girl loved and lost by men.
Much of the energy of Juliet’s scenes was enhanced by the presence of the glorious Meera Syal as the Nurse. Shrewd and opinionated, Syal’s Nurse easily took offence, but it took just one tear from her erstwhile charge to melt her heart. Even the crude jokes, which sometimes feel a bit forced, flowed naturally here and Syal added her own moments of comedy as she bustled in and out. Her warmth was a stark contrast to the glamorous ice of Lady Capulet (Marisa Berenson) and the whipcrack temper of the unpredictable Capulet himself (Michael Rouse), who can be indulgent one moment and vicious the next. As the last major member of the Capulets, Ansu Kabia made a sleek and muscular Tybalt – the Prince of Cats indeed! – with feline suppleness and a lion’s arrogance. He wasn’t as urbane as other Tybalts I’ve seen: he was a brawler, pure and simple, struggling with barely-contained rage.
On the Montague side, Benvolio was played by Jack Colgrave Hirst: a less amenable and courteous Benvolio than I’ve seen before. Usually the character is a peacemaker with a honeyed tongue, able to calm ruffles and keep the Prince content. But Hirst looked like a borderline thug, swaggering around in a vest like Marlon Brando’s brother and deliberately shouldering into Tybalt in the opening scene. There was no doubt which side this Benvolio belonged to, and perhaps his belligerence was exaggerated by the contrast with Mercutio – usually the excitable, combative one. Here, in a stroke of casting brilliance, Derek Jacobi is Mercutio: the sharp-tongued older man still hanging around with the boys and pretending it keeps him young. Jacobi is mellifluous, as always, and he even managed to make the Queen Mab speech fun, where normally I drift off towards the end. His Mercutio makes speeches that are the stuff of a raconteur’s fantasy and his young friends tolerate him when he holds court at the café table because he’s amusing, a kind of mascot. It’s only when Mercutio, driven to bravado by the heat, unsheathes his cane-sword on Tybalt that we realise he, too, is as embroiled in this feud as anyone else.
Romeo is, of course, meant to be played by Richard Madden, best known for tramping around in fur cloaks and saying ‘Winter is coming’ in a northern accent as Robb Stark. He, like James, was in the recent Cinderella (also directed by Branagh), which personally I found excessively bland and sugary, but I’d been looking forward to seeing how he’d cope with Shakespeare. However, it turned out that Madden had twisted his ankle two weeks ago and had been covered by his understudy until, in a freak accident last week, that same understudy had hurt his leg. Presumably there was no understudy of the understudy, and so Branagh managed to track down someone else who knew the part with only two days’ notice. And that was Freddie Fox, who was recently playing Romeo at the Sheffield Crucible.
I haven’t seen Fox in anything before, and my first thought was that he had the floppy-haired, golden boy looks that would have earned him a retainder from Merchant Ivory back in the glory days. We were all delighted he’d come along at such short notice and were prepared to be indulgent. And then the play began, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that Fox was brilliant, the most captivating actor on the stage. He didn’t just look the part, he lived it: he obviously knows the text intimately and he spoke it with such ease that it sounded like prose. His Romeo is initially self-aware and cynical, wallowing in an infatuation with Rosalind because it’s the thing to do; and yet, on meeting Juliet, his world becomes one of wonder, in which love banishes meaning from everything else. He was conversational and naturalistic, finding a warm humour in lines which all too often are played with yearning earnestness, and showing an entirely convincing chemistry with James’s Juliet. No offence to Richard Madden, and I hope his ankle is healing, but I treasured the chance to see Fox.
The only thing that detracted from perfection was an occasional tendency for actors to speak too fast (Hirst’s Benvolio was one I noticed), which made it difficult to tease out the words. But overall this truly is a very good production of an overdone play, which makes its magic seem fresh again. Tickets are scarce now, but there’s due to be a cinema broadcast on 14 August (as the show finishes on 13 August, I presume it’s a prerecorded one with Madden playing Romeo). I fully recommend it and, indeed, I might even go to the cinema so that I can judge Madden against Fox (in the friendliest way, of course)…