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Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet – review round-up

A scene from Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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Kenneth Branagh said to The Stage last year that staging Romeo and Juliet carried a sense of “unfinished business”, and as companies continue to mark 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, he presents the latest take on the star-crossed lovers, the penultimate production in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s 12-month stint at the Garrick Theatre in the West End.

Branagh pairs Game of Thrones star Richard Madden with Downton Abbey’s Lily James in the title roles — the pair previously starred together in the 2015 live-action film adaption of Disney’s Cinderella.

Branagh shares the directing duties with Rob Ashford — who also choreographed the piece — and the creative team includes design by Christopher Oram, lighting by Howard Hudson and sound by Christopher Shutt. Members of the ensemble includes Tom Hanson, Matthew Hawksley and Derek Jacobi. Troy Nankervis rounds up the reviews.

Romeo and Juliet – Back to the future

ROMEO AND JULIET by Shakespeare,         , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, Set and Costume Designer - Christopher Oram, Lighting - Howard Hudson, The Garrick Theatre, London, 2016,  Credit: Johan PerssonUpdating the production’s design motifs to 1950s Italy gets big ticks from most critics. Simon Thomson (City AM, ★★★★★) writes the “minimal” but “clever” use of “blasted, rectangular sandstone columns” channels “the works of Caravaggio”, while Michael Billington (The Guardian, ★★★★) says the “striking effect” of Christopher Oram’s design conjures images of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo. “The best is when Juliet retires for the night in a circular white tent that descends on her like a shroud,” he writes.

Holly Williams (The Independent, ★★★) observes this “effective backdrop” with all its “clichéd “ciao”-ing and stereotype-trading matriarchal shouting” helps the cast generate a “whiff of Mafia machismo” and “a sense that la dolce vita is undercut with an ever-present threat of violence”.

With more trepidation, Marianka Swain (Arts Desk, ★★★) says the “gauzy drapes are attractive but fussy” while Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★) says the “would-be modern trappings” channel an episode of Dynasty circa 1982. “Marisa Berenson’s earnest Lady Capulet brings to mind Joan Collins and the show even starts unpromisingly with a heavy-handed voice-over narration that feels like it’s out of an old Hollywood movie,” he writes.

Romeo and Juliet – A chemistry experiment

ROMEO AND JULIET by Shakespeare,         , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, Set and Costume Designer - Christopher Oram, Lighting - Howard Hudson, The Garrick Theatre, London, 2016,  Credit: Johan PerssonFor a production hinging on the magnetism of its two leads, there’s a feeling that this is in short supply between Richard Madden and Lily James. Dominic Cavendish (The Telegraph, ★★★) says “Madden’s hero is maddeningly ordinary”, while Henry Hitchings (London Evening Standard, ★★★) writes Madden’s “one-note performance” as Romeo fails to generate “much chemistry” at all.

As Juliet, Georgie Cowan-Turner (The Upcoming, ★★★★) writes James “grows into the role” but “seems to simply recite rather than feel the words”. Michael Billington is left “puzzled” as the character’s “maturation from inexperienced child to married woman” is seemingly overlooked, while Susannah Clapp (The Observer, ★★) says proceedings carry “intermittent fizz but never feels urgent or perilous”. “They [Madden and James] were meant to hoist the production sky-high, towards Phoebus’s lodging. But their speaking is earthbound.”

And while Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★) says “James does her best to bring out the young-teen element of Juliet’s character”, an overall lack of “dynamism or passion” comes down to just “a sprinkling of ideas” and never any “sign of a spark in overall concept or execution.”

He adds the ensemble are “over-focused on playing the verse” with “thoroughly outdated” conventions, while Mark Shenton simply feels both Madden and James “sound notes of shrill passion and petulance”.

Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) also picks up on this, but believes fans will forgive Madden and James given their star power. Instead, he contends the “meat’n’two veg performances” — while “not doing anything fancy”— is “solid”, but not outstanding.

Romeo and Juliet – Good Sir Derek

ROMEO AND JULIET by Shakespeare,         , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, Set and Costume Designer - Christopher Oram, Lighting - Howard Hudson, The Garrick Theatre, London, 2016,  Credit: Johan PerssonThe surprise casting of Derek Jacobi as Mercutio was popular with critics across the board. Susannah Clapp calls Jacobi’s performance “a show of his own”, while Holly Williams writes of a “camply dapper, sarcastic and lascivious older gent”. Henry Hitchings says Jacobi, while unusually cast, is “a cane-twirling delight.”

Matt Trueman (Variety) says the unconventional casting also draws new subtext out of the character. He writes: “His death packs a punch not because he’s cut down in his prime, but because he’s so harmless; no threat to Ansu Kabia’s Tybalt whatsoever.”

But while Marianka Swain agrees as a “dapper, mincing Mercutio, Derek Jacobi makes a five-course meal” out of the role, she argues, “his relationship to the much younger Romeo is ill-defined, therefore its violent severing lacks impact”.

Andrzej Lukowksi also fears the rest of cast are unable to match his acting chops. He writes: “The obvious downside of shoving a living stage legend next to actors who are, er, not is that there’s nobody there to stop him running off with the show, which is a big problem when he’s only in the first half.”

Romeo and Juliet – So is it any good?

ROMEO AND JULIET by Shakespeare,         , Writer - William Shakespeare, Director - Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, Set and Costume Designer - Christopher Oram, Lighting - Howard Hudson, The Garrick Theatre, London, 2016,  Credit: Johan PerssonWith exceptions, most critics feel the production’s shortcomings should have been avoidable. While Mark Shenton is supportive of commercial plays in the West End, he says Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet shows “precisely how it should not be done” while Marianka Swain adds a “winning star turn” cannot make up for what’s “ultimately rather hollow”.

Likewise, Henry Hitchings feels the production misses “passionate intensity”, while Holly Williams writes the “appropriately teenage high drama”, doesn’t counter the fact “the show never plumbs the full depths of tragedy”.

Neil Dowden (Exeunt) says Branagh and Ashford’s lacklustre production falls short of their impressive season-opener The Winter’s Tale” while Matt Trueman feels Branagh “never allows room for the possibility that, this time, just maybe, disaster will be averted”. He writes “Instead, Verona’s a crypt from the start, and as the missed chances stack up — Juliet stirring the second Romeo swigs — it all starts to feel rather contrived.”

On the other hand, Dominic Cavendish says James “makes, nay saves, the night”, while Georgie Cowan-Turner writes the production carries “the qualities of a film”.

Michael Billington feels its departure from a traditional staging brings “speed and vigour” and ensures against boredom. “You feel Fellini is due any moment to film it with a movie camera and, even if the result has its oddities, the production certainly has a pulsating energy.”

Read more theatre reviews in The Stage

 

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