The Branagh Theatre Company’s year-long residency at the Garrick has been a critical and box office triumph. But this penultimate production in the season, while being far from a disaster, has unfortunately — at least artistically — hit something of a bump in the road.
Branagh returns to the first Shakespeare play he ever directed and along with co-director Rob Ashford, has produced what is certainly a stylish take on the tragic tale of forbidden love, but one that is let down by some uneven and not wholly convincing performances.
Cast as the star-crossed lovers are Richard Madden from cult television series Game of Thrones and Lily James, best known for her role in another hit series Downton Abbey and more recently the BBC adaptation of War and Peace. The pair also starred in the 2015 Branagh directed film of Cinderella.
While this isn’t exactly stunt casting (both have theatre credentials, including Shakespeare), it does demonstrate a canny understanding of public taste by Branagh and a shrewd ability to get bums on seats. But it’s not a pairing that works particularly well on stage.
James in particular rushes through the text and invests it with very little emotion. Even when she learns of Romeo’s part in a killing and his banishment from Verona, we aren’t convinced of her agony. Madden fairs a little better, but even he fails to really engage us.
Thanks to designer Christopher Oram, this is a Romeo and Juliet that is certainly sumptuous to look at, however. In a palazzo, young men strut their stuff in sharp suits and dark glasses, while the women are the epitome of Italian style. It’s a striking blend of Fellini with a dash of The Godfather for good measure. And the ball at which Romeo first encounters Juliet is played out against a thumping techno soundtrack as bodies writhe in the half darkness.
This leads to a nicely played balcony scene that sees Juliet swigging heartily from a bottle of wine — a woman giddy from a night of hard partying as well as a new-found love.
Those few moments aside though, you can’t help feeling that James and Madden are rather overshadowed by everyone around them.
In an inspired piece of casting Branagh and Ashford have Derek Jacobi as Mercutio. Not as is usual a contemporary of Romeo, but a wiser old sage — albeit a decidedly camp one. Every word, every inflection, every gesture is perfectly measured in a performance that shows how it should be done. Michael Rouse is a visceral Lord Capulet, Ansu Kabia an intense Tybalt, and there’s a delightful turn from Meera Syal as Juliet’s nurse.
It’s also nice to see Branagh and Ashford giving parts to relatively recent drama school graduates in some other roles, but ultimately this turns out to be a frustrating production.
Reviewed by Tony Peters
Photo: Johan Persson
ROMEO AND JULIET plays at the Garrick Theatre until 13 August 2016. Tickets