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Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick

May 29, 2016

I was a bit disappointed by Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet, at the Garrick Theatre. I saw his version of the Winter’s Tale at the beginning of the year and it was so wonderful that we then went to see Harlequinade – quite light but still really good. This play, which I was expecting to be blown away by, definitely comes in third on my list.

I loved the sharp Italian setting of the play, and the 1950s costumes – Verona has never looked so stylish. The set was very clever, too, very pared back but with the occasional telling detail, like the froth of white drapes which dropped from the ceiling to be Juliet’s bed curtains as she took the poison (I hope I don’t have to worry about spoilers with the most famous play in the English language) and uncannily mimicked the shroud she was all too soon to wear.

Meera Syal was a cheerfully vulgar and effortlessly likeable Nurse and I really liked the unusual casting of Sir Derek Jacobi as a knowing, elderly but still dapper Mercutio. For once his wonderful Queen Mab speech actually made some sort of sense, as it really doesn’t when rattled off by a bloodthirsty teenager/young gang member. His sudden transformation from ageing roue to fighter was only negotiated by stressing more than usual the way that the fatal sword-thrust happens by accident, because Romeo gets in the way of the duelling pair. They just about pulled it off with some clever footwork and I thought he was magnificent. Child Two disagreed, though, thinking the part should have gone to some eye-candy 20-something lad – fair enough at her age.

I liked Lily James, who was so adorably innocent in Downton Abbey, but was a knowing and distinctly up-for-it Juliet here. My real problem was with Richard Madden. He acted as though he’d just bumped into Juliet at the bus stop, was passing a bit of time chatting, but didn’t really fancy her very much and was quite looking forward to jumping on the 108 to Stratford and getting back to the lads. I wasn’t feeling the deathless passion. I was amazed, later, to discover that they both starred in the recent Disney film of Cinderella – so they definitely have met before and there ought to have been some sort of chemistry. Maybe they’d had words backstage that night and were on no-speakies? Or maybe it’s just that it takes a very special actor to get Romeo from callow young twit to heart-sore deep soul in two and a half hours.

I’ve always thought that Prince Charming, Cinderella’s beau, is the most boring of all the Disney heroes, so maybe Madden was well cast there but not so much in a Shakespeare. Ironically, Branagh’s scenes as Romeo in Harlequinade, which are supposed to be ridiculous since he is (in the play and sadly now in real life too) much too old for the part, and were played strictly for laughs, were actually better. Branagh just can’t act badly, even when he is acting badly.

Maybe it all fell a bit flat because we’d seen an absolutely wonderful King Lear at the Richmond Theatre four days before, starring Michael Pennington. I haven’t reviewed it here because it was only on for a week – inexplicably – so there wouldn’t have been a chance for anyone to get tickets. Romeo and Juliet is on until 13th August, though. Go and see it and let me know what you think.

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