The National Theater’s “Romeo and Juliet” hits its mark

Romeo and Juliet Jessie Buckley & Josh O'Connor in Romeo and Juliet (PBS)

PBS presents a fresh & engagingly modern take on the timeless tale of star-crossed lovers.

Filmed over 17 days on a closed stage due to the global pandemic, Romeo and Juliet is an intimate and compelling production of a familiar story. The beats are all there: star-crossed lovers find each other amidst the bitter enmity of their families, people party, people die, the most convoluted plan in all of playwriting history is hatched, more people die. There have been, roughly, over 200 on-screen adaptations alone of the play, ranging from full-length movies to thematically appropriate TV episodes. The titular couple has been vampires and gnomes. What does a new version have to offer an audience who have known this story all of their lives? How do you film the most-filmed play of all time? 

The National Theatre’s new Romeo and Juliet film (aired in the U.S. by PBS’ Great Performances) stars two familiar faces as the titular couple: The Crown’s Josh O’Connor and Fargo’s Jessie Buckley, but the pair vanish into their roles with ease. They are backed up by the strong supporting cast, including Fisayo Akinade as Mercutio and Tamsin Grieg as a chilling Lady Capulet. Directed by Simon Goodwin and adapted from William Shakespeare’s play by Emily Burns, the film shifts between playful cast moments in a rehearsal setting and fully staged scenes, though even the latter maintain a sparse Our Town-type feel. Romeo’s home-in-exile in Mantua is a bare storage room, which both throws his stark mental state into clear view but also feels a little on the nose. Maybe a chair? Or a blanket? 

Story-wise, the play is what it is, though Burns has tweaked some characterizations and moments that give the production a fresh feel; the actors themselves do wonderful work embodying characters that have become tropes in their own right. Grieg’s Lady Capulet is a portrait of an ice queen, a woman who waves aside reminiscences of her daughter’s birth, who tells Tybalt (David Judge) to leave Romeo alone in a voice of pure steel, who can disown her daughter in one chilly moment and violently mourn her in another. Deborah Findlay’s Nurse is a welcome respite from the comic relief that the character can often become, and Lucian Msamati is a powerhouse as Friar Laurence, giving a good-hearted strength to a character who kind of makes the worst decisions possible. 

The actors do wonderful work embodying characters that have become tropes in their own right.

Of course, no production of Romeo and Juliet can stand without its title characters, and O’Connor and Buckley are poignant and bright, both full of tremulous happiness and complete certainty that their choices are good and will lead to their happy futures. The audience knows that they will not, and Romeo and Juliet seem to know that too, in flashes. 

Romeo and Juliet, though contemporary in clothing and some staging (the party scene in particular), exists in a sort of vacuum, nothing exists outside of the rooms of the Capulet house, the Friar’s church, the various alleyways of Verona. The various deaths are quick and ugly affairs, none of the showy stage fighting that previous adaptations have reveled in. When Tybalt dies at Romeo’s hand, it’s short and brutal, Romeo’s lizard brain reaction to Mercutio’s death; the same with the inevitable ending of the lovers themselves. Choices are made swiftly and irrevocably, and though we know what the ending will be, it still brings tears when it happens. 

Romeo and Juliet is a refreshing and vital new take on a classic, one that brings a little bit of theater production to our homes. We’ll be back in theaters someday, but until then, it’s nice to pretend. Even if you know the story by heart, even if you’re tired of Shakespeare, give this one a try. 

Romeo and Juliet premieres on PBS today.

Romeo and Juliet Trailer:

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