22nd July 2021
I will admit to some initial skepticism. Switching on the National Theatre’s latest Easter-released adaptation of Romeo & Juliet (Sky Arts: Freeview channel 11; Freesat channel 147), I feared at first in may prove the theatrical equivalent of avant garde modern art. A sort of scripted cow in formaldehyde. (Romeo and Moo-liet, anyone?) It appeared to have been filmed backstage, the Prologue (‘Two households, both alike in dignity…’) recited amid stacked chairs, the cast in casual civvies- tracksuits, chinos- not costume. Intriguing? Yes. Different? Definitely. Yet perhaps, if I looked too long, something that would become a bit, well, freaky. Maybe I didn’t really want to see the inner workings of a theatre, much as I really didn’t want to see the inner workings of a cow. Let’s just say, I’m glad I persevered. Here’s why you should, too.
Yes, it turns out that a novel ‘backstage staging’ boasts many an advantage. For one, the many spaces behind a theatre allow a dynamicity of performance that would just not be possible on a static stage. Cue an impassioned Juliet (an excellently volatile Jessie Buckley, truly a Wild Rose), racing to Friar Lawrence’s (Lucian Msamati) cell, or the lovers playing a game of hide-and-seek in the green room. For two, it emphasises divisions in a play full of them: Tybalt and Mercutio’s back alley brawl can be conducted far from the gilded cage (complete with balcony) in which a thwarted, tethered Juliet bemoans her fate; Romeo’s (Josh O’ Connor) banishment to Mantua (via what looks like a backstage broom cupboard) becomes much more palpable. For three, the relative unfussiness of the backstage as backdrop forces the viewer to attend to some inimitable acting by the cast, bolstered by Shakespeare’s immortal lines. It literalises the ‘stripped back’ approach. And for four, it taps into a collective nosiness, granting the audience a backstage pass. Aha! So that is what goes on behind the scenes…
All this is not to say that the staging is the play’s only achievement, or its only innovation. The National Theatre’s star-crossed duo were a little older than the Bard intended, both in their thirties. In fact, Buckley played a woeful wooee intended to be less than half her age (a tender thirteen), which necessitated the omission of lines like Capulet’s: ‘She hath not seen the change of fourteen years.’ This excision clearly makes sense, as does the removal of the whole bite-my-thumb-at-you-’cos-I’m-a-bad-man sequence, hence modernising the storyline (although the Shakespeare purist in me missed the poignant ‘worms’ meat’ pronouncement of Mercutio a few lines later). All this meant, too, that the ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage’ was reduced to a perfectly palatable, post-chocolate egg binge package of 1 hour 40. Then again, it wasn’t so much ‘of our stage’ as behind it.
Amid increasing awareness of B L M and the attempted decolonisation of our institutions, it was also great to see Shakespeare’s classic tragedy enacted by so ethnically varied a cast. There was a bit of gender-bending, too, with Ella Dacres as sassy servant Peta; meanwhile, Tamsin Greig as Lady Capulet shucked stereotypes to completely dominate- or at least try to- her entire family. Most pioneering of all, though, was the depiction of a clandestine relationship between Montague kinsmen Mercutio (played by Fisayo Akinado) and Benvolio (Shubnam Saraf). Their love scenes were cleverly intercut with the main couple’s, a foil to the play’s heteronormative focus. Being wordless, the National Theatre even managed to retain the integrity of the original, Renaissance script. Rumours as to Shakespeare’s sexuality (fuelled by several steamy sonnets) have been moot for centuries, though, so arguably even this addition was not too much of a stretch.
Aligning with the naturalistic backstage-as-backdrop vibe, the cast each kept their authentic accents, which ranged from Brummie and Scouse to a Creole-inflected Estuary English. This was only a boon for the play’s Montague v. Capulet dynamic, with Buckley’s Irish lilt quite literally making vocal the gulf between herself and a plummy-voiced O’Connor as Romeo, spawn of avowed family enemy.
Yet no matter the characters’ speech or their sexual preferences, the story of the star-crossed lovers always ends the same. Sadly [Spoiler alert], it’s suicide x2. For the National Theatre’s adaptation of this tragic denouement, the play quite literally comes full circle. It’s the (welcome) return of the spindly-legged, stackable chair, with the entire cast ranged round the funeral bier. They look on at the two draped corpses; we look on at their looking on. It’s a bit of a Gogglebox moment, more perfectly keyed symbolic staging of private tragedy that has public consequences. With Juliet lying in a flimsy black silk slip, Romeo in soiled white linen, even their outfits allude to an opposites-attract union. And this tableau mori is maintained until the play’s closing montage, a lesson learnt, preserved like a cow in formaldehyde.
The National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet first aired at 21:00 on Sunday 4 April, Sky Arts, and is available to stream now.