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Review: Romeo and Juliet (National Theatre, Sky Arts)

The National Theatre provides the backdrop for this 90-minute version of Shakespeares's classic tragedy

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Jessie Buckley and Josh O'Connor in Romeo and Juliet
© Rob Youngson

At the close, on a black screen, the following words appear: "Romeo and Juliet was filmed on a single stage over 17 days during a global pandemic." Deliberately blunt, they are a reminder of the extraordinary conditions in which this version of Shakespeare's play was produced. But this collaboration between the National Theatre and Sky Arts would be exceptional in any circumstances.

With an intelligent director and a mouth-watering cast, led by Josh O'Connor and Jessie Buckley, it forges a new hybrid between stage and screen, using all the resources and exploratory power of theatre and the beauty and fluidity of film to create a fleet-footed and thought-provoking 90-minutes.

In productions such as Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night, director Simon Godwin has long proved that he is one of the most insightful and sensitive directors of Shakespeare today. He has a knack for making small changes that yield big rewards. Here, for example, his regular collaborator Tamsin Greig into a Lady Capulet takes over Lord Capulet's role, becoming in the process a ferociously cold, calculating head of household against whom Buckley's warm and impulsive Juliet struggles to define herself. Her froideur encourages her daughter's passion. Here too, Lucian Msamati's Friar Laurence becomes less an interfering priest and more a maker of comforting cups of tea, a father figure whom the lovers trust to make sense of a world with which they are out of joint.

Above all, with the help of Emily Burns' radical but brilliant adaptation and director of photography Tim Sidell's sensuous cinematography, Godwin understands that film doesn't just give you the ability to shoot in intimate close-up, but also to play with the concept of time itself: the couple's fate is prefigured in their constant use of poetry that mingles love and death, light and darkness, morning and night and the way the production is filmed shows us that by moving backwards and forwards, through memory and premonition.

It begins quietly, with the cast assembling on the empty Lyttelton stage, where the entire play is filmed, using every square metre of the vast space for different settings. The iron curtain in the auditorium closes them in as the action begins, and as it progresses, the cast embody their characters and Soutra Gilmour's fine, stark designs become more theatrical: elaborate masks for the party scene, a silver moon for the balcony, vibrant flowers surrounding the tomb.

But we never lose the sense that we are in a theatre. This is emotion embodied rather than made naturalistic. When Juliet takes the potion that will send her to sleep, her bed is surrounded by the rest of the cast, sitting still, just out of shot, involved in her act; at the end, the rehearsal clothes reappear, tugging back into our world all we have learnt about the power of hate to kill the young.

At the heart of all this are performances from O'Connor and Buckley that ring entirely true. She is a mass of exposed feeling, her thoughts seeming to live on the surface of her skin, finding expression in her entire being. He has a wonderful, surprised quietness, a round-shouldered melancholy that is broken by sense of joy, that suddenly creeps up on him. But every performance is note perfect. In addition to Greig and Msamati, who are both magnificent, there's a wonderfully sharp Mercutio from Fisayo Akinade, who manages to make the Queen Mab speech both understandable and pertinent and whose love for Benvolio (Shubham Saraf) balances the unrelenting spoiling viciousness of David Judge's truly frightening Tybalt. Credit too to choreographer Jonathan Goddard and fight director Kate Waters who make every movement in these confined spaces tell.

It's a terrific achievement all round, and a clear reminder of the capacity of theatre to bring emotional and intellectual rigour to our understanding of events and feelings. Played like this, Romeo and Juliet has so much to say about the transformative qualities of love, and to experience it in our living rooms feels like a huge compensation for theatres being closed.

Sky Arts is free-to-air and available for everyone in the UK on Freeview channel 11. There are repeat showings on Easter Monday 5 April at 9.30pm and Thursday 8 April at 10pm.

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