In the heat of the summer, there’s nothing better than settling into a cool movie theatre seat with popcorn and a drink. One of my new favorite things is to go see theatre broadcasts at the movie theatre. I saw one last fall–Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet–so I was excited to see that Kenneth Branagh was releasing a new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet starring Richard Madden and Lily James, Disney’s live-action Prince Charming and Cinderella, respectively.
There are typically two ways to play R&J. Some performances play up the youthful, teenage aspects of the play. Juliet is typically silly and girlish, and Romeo is your typical starstruck teenage boy. The play comes across as a tragic accident that happens because the two main characters are too young to know what they’re doing. The other option is to go completely star-crossed, and play up the romantic, doomed aspects of R&J’s relationship.
Branagh’s version contains the best of both worlds, and on the whole I liked it. Below you’ll find my bulleted review of the play.
What I (mostly) liked:
- The play’s translation to 1950s Italy: When you read Romeo and Juliet, it’s easy to forget that the play isn’t set in Shakespeare’s England, it’s in “fair Verona where we lay our scene.” This adaptation takes the Italian aspect of Romeo and Juliet and runs with it.The characters chatter in Italian and drink espressos; there are cafes, stone columns, and very chic 1950s-style costumes and music. And because the film version was broadcast in black and white, the whole performance seemed even more film noir and classic.
- The adaptation of the play itself: If Branagh made cuts and rearrangements to the script, I didn’t notice. Typically all Shakespeare adaptations have been trimmed down and rearranged to some extent, but I didn’t bring my copy along with me to see what was changed. It’s always good that your favorite plays haven’t been noticeably chopped up and rearranged!
- Lily James’ performance: James, star of Branagh’s Cinderella film and Lady Rose on Downton Abbey, was an excellent, if confused Juliet. As I mentioned above, there are two ways to play Romeo and Juliet, and James’ performance combined both the silly, teenage aspect and the mature, womanly aspect. My favorite part was her speech in the tomb before she takes Friar Lawrence’s potion.
- Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech: I’ll write more on Sir Derek Jacobi’s Mercutio later, but this was the best “Queen Mab” speech I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t a rambling rant or some crazy story told by a drunk teenager, it was Shakespeare’s poetry at its best, and I, for the first time, could visualize all of the tiny actions taking place in the speech.
What I (mostly) didn’t:
- Branagh’s casting choice for Mercutio: Sir Derek Jacobi is an older Mercutio than any I’ve ever seen. Instead of a young friend of Romeo’s, Jacobi plays a wiser, still ready-to-party Mercutio. I believed it and enjoyed it until Mercutio challenges Tybalt to a fight–why would nobody step in on his behalf? The casting choice, according to Branagh, is based on an old story about George Orwell. Supposedly Orwell was partying in Paris when he and his friends ran into an older gentleman who was wise but also able to keep up with the younger men. After the night of carousing was over, Orwell and his friends were told that the old man was none other than Oscar Wilde. Even though that’s a cool story, I don’t know if I completely believed Jacobi as an Oscar Wilde-esque Mercutio.
- Richard Madden’s Romeo: While Richard Madden (Game of Thrones, Cinderella) is certainly hunky and handsome enough to play Romeo, I felt that his performance was a little flat. He didn’t deliver the lines in an emotional enough way for me to really buy his swift transition from loving Rosalind to loving Juliet.
So, on the whole, there were more “pros” than “cons.” If you get the chance to see this film or if you’re lucky enough to see it live at the Garrick in London, let me know what you think! I’ll leave you with these words from the play:
I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire;
The day is hot, the Capulets abroad,
And, if we meet, we shall not ‘scape a brawl;
For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.
I always think of these lines in the dead of summer–it’s hot, and it seems like everyone is up in arms about something. Whether it’s 1950’s Italian gangs, teenage lovers, or road rage in Atlanta traffic, stay cool and keep reading!