Review: ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Cut in Half and Twice as Good

What’s written in haste may be repaired in haste. Or so the fine and fleet new “Romeo and Juliet” from Britain’s National Theater, available here on PBS’s “Great Performances,” convinces me.

At 90 minutes, it is even shorter than the “two hours’ traffic of our stage” promised in its first lines but rarely honored in performance. (The entire play normally takes about three hours.) Yet as directed by Simon Goodwin, this emotionally satisfying and highly theatrical filmed version scores point after point while whizzing past, or outright cutting, the elements that can make you think it was written not by Shakespeare but by O. Henry on a bender.

If the cutting merely left what remains with a much higher proportion of penetrating insight and powerful feeling, that would be enough; “Romeo and Juliet,” at its best, anticipates the great later works in which complexity and ambivalence are made real and gorgeous in language. But the speed serves another function here: telling a story that’s mostly about teenagers with a teenage intensity and recklessness.

Not that the stars are anywhere near their adolescence. Though Romeo is 17 or so and Juliet, 13, Josh O’Connor, who played mopey young Prince Charles in “The Crown,” is 30, and Jessie Buckley, the mysterious star of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” 31. Still, there’s a reason they’re called actors: They can perform the acts a play requires of them. Onstage, at any rate, that would be sufficient.

On film, we need an extra push, which Godwin and Emily Burns, who adapted the text, provide by grounding us in a theatrical world before escorting us into a filmic one. The production begins unceremoniously with the cast in street clothes, entering a theater, unmasked and vulnerable, none more so than O’Connor, with the low-slung, “sticky-out” ears he says earned him his role on “The Crown.” Sitting on three sides of a small, square, scuffed playing space, the actors are barely past the greeting phase — O’Connor and Buckley smile shyly at one another, as if across a Veronese piazza — when the play leaps out of the gate.

Purists not already offended will soon have plenty to set them off. The masked ball at which the lovers meet is not exactly courtly; it’s more like a rave, and Romeo is given just two lines (instead of 10) to fall for Juliet, who is moaning at the mic like Lana Del Rey.

But impurists will be satisfied that the erotic intensity between them is so palpable, even when Godwin dissipates it by cutting away from the theatrical moment to a filmed montage in some other dimension. Similarly, the introduction of a passionate gay pairing among the supporting roles makes up in thematic coherence — the plot turns on forbidden love — what it lacks in textual fidelity.

The trade-offs continue throughout. The most fascinating one finds Juliet’s parents inverted, Lady Capulet (Tamsin Greig) getting most of the lines Shakespeare wrote for her Lord (Lloyd Hutchinson). Greig, so funny on the Showtime series “Episodes,” is spectacularly entertaining as she explores what besides the habitual assertion of male power might motivate a parent to threaten a daughter with expulsion. Her interpretation, underlined by “evil” music, nevertheless denatures one key feature of the play, which now suggests that the Capulets are monsters when the really terrifying thing is that they’re not. They are upstanding citizens doing what’s expected.

It is that atmosphere of immutable custom and inherited hatred that the lovers are desperate to escape. But Godwin’s staging makes clear by physical proximity and by judicious intercutting that these elements are related: Romeo and Juliet’s passion is as rash and irrational as the other characters’ repression and violence. As the outlines of their love are filled in, so is the hatred around them — and so are the set (by Soutra Gilmour) and props; swords that were simple wooden dowels in Act I by Act III are knives that look menacingly real. In youth, it seems, enmity precedes an enemy just as love precedes a lover.

At every turn we are offered insights like that until, suddenly, we aren’t. Nothing Godwin can do to make the play rough and unfamiliar — whether by having Tybalt (David Judge) urinate on a wall or by excising greatest hits like “parting is such sweet sorrow” — can help it get past the place where the lovers’ ingenuity fails along with Shakespeare’s. The plot thread by which Juliet’s fake death prompts Romeo’s real one is so absurdly flimsy that adaptations have tried for centuries to fix it; Arthur Laurents’s workaround for “West Side Story” is especially strong.

For me, though, no production of “Romeo and Juliet” survives the potions of Friar Laurence; they are a lot of magick to swallow in a play about such real and serious things. That Laurence is portrayed here (by Lucian Msamati) with great dignity, not as a nutty professor, helps, raising the profound if wishful idea that faith can correct for society’s failings. Even more movingly, Deborah Findlay, as Juliet’s fond nurse, is able to temper the role’s comic elements with an immutable loyalty to her mistress, and then temper that with something darker and arguably in fact disloyal. It’s a perfect trifold performance.

That’s the thing about Shakespeare, at least for me: There comes a moment in many of his plays when only the actors can preserve the emotion the plot keeps leaking. Happily, that happens here: As the tragedy narrows, O’Connor and Buckley flood with feeling.

Stars will do that. In the same way an enemy is just a receptacle for enmity that already exists, a starring role is whatever a star can pour ambient emotion into. O’Connor’s essence is a silent yearning — the kind that is not extinguished but fanned by satisfaction. (This is what made his otherwise insufferable Charles almost sympathetic in “The Crown” and the nearly silent young farmer in his breakthrough film, “God’s Own Country,” so expressive.) Buckley, whose face seems transparent at times, is more about wonder; her Juliet clearly wants Romeo but, more than that, is amazed by her good fortune in getting him.

Even in a more conventional production — this one was meant to be performed live onstage but was retooled for the pandemic — you need that kind of incandescence to make the play make sense. Remember that Shakespeare was a young star, too, albeit 30 or so himself, when he wrote “Romeo and Juliet.” Indeed, it often seems that his title characters, in haste and passion, wrote it for him.

Romeo & Juliet
Through May 21;

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