Review: Stage to Screen, Romeo and Juliet at the National

Theatres across the globe have been gathering dust over the past year, and bar a few online streams, the majority of small scale theatres have taken a hit financially. This has led to numerous closures. Not only has this had a grave affect on the businesses that run these theatres, but also on everyone who choses this career path. Actors, dancers, directors, and production teams have all suffered from the underrepresentation of the theatre in the government’s response to Covid. 

Abroad, the United Kingdom has always seemed to enjoy a more supportive alliance between government and the performing arts. Possibly this can be linked to the magnitude of the industry, especially in London. I travelled to London two years ago to attend numerous productions over a three day period, with my Masters programme at UCD. It was my first time as a creative adult to visit London for the sole purpose of attending theatre. It’s like a different universe. Theatres are huge enterprises in large, beautiful buildings, with some shows running three times a day for massive audiences packed into their seats. It’s fascinating that across the pond there is such a wealth of support for the theatre scene. 

However, while I have a lot to say about support for the arts in Ireland, this article focuses on a very clever and brilliant production of Emily Burn’s Romeo and Juliet by The National Theatre. Due to the pandemic, many companies have brought their theatre online. I, for one, have enjoyed the benefits of this. I have been able to access theatre productions that I may not have otherwise had the opportunity to see. For instance, The National Theatre provided “Theatre at Home” at the very beginning of the pandemic, which gave audiences a chance to watch productions such as Titus Andronicus, Jane Eyre, and a fantastic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not only has this allowed greater access to theatre for all communities, but also reduces the stigma surrounding attendance at a theatre show.

Many of these productions were filmed prior to the pandemic, meaning there is a full audience present and overall the productions are designed for theatre, to be filmed for archival reasons. However, The National have now ventured into the world of filmmaking to combine both theatre and film to create a novel visual storytelling experience.

I recently made a piece of theatre that was transferred to film. It was a different process to anything I had ever done before, and quite challenging, possibly due to the need to understand cues, naturalism, and framing on film that you would not need to consider for theatre. However, I felt it important to indicate it was still primarily a theatre piece.

The National Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet is an adaptation by Burns of the famous Shakespeare play. It was directed by Simon Godwin and had cinematography by Tim Siddell, while it was shot over 14 days. The team cut the narrative down to 90 minutes, possibly making it more accessible to audiences that are becoming more reliant on fast-paced story-telling and fast moving imagery. The creative team included costume and production designer Soutra Gilmour, movement directors Johnathon Goddard and Shelley Maxwell, and composer Michael Bruce (the music was fantastic!) 

Arguably, most of us have negative experiences with anything Shakespeare-related, just due to the way it is taught in an academic setting. Many people are aware of the iconic portrayal of the role of Romeo by Leonardo Di Caprio. Generally, it is known as “the Junior Certificate play” here in Ireland. 

Susannah Clapp from the reviewed The National’s production; “This is – without strain – a feminised version: ‘womanly fears’ is quietly changed to ‘childish’”. I couldn’t agree more. There was a certain femininity portrayed by the actors through Godwin’s direction. 

Josh O’Connor, who recently received a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Charles in The Crown, plays Romeo. I wasn’t sure what to expect from him after his time on The Crown, as it is difficult to imagine him outside of the role. However, he blossomed into what was a very honest portrayal of a young Romeo, dealing with the turmoil of forbidden love. He adds a boy-like quality that I haven’t seen before in other performances of the play. 

Leonardo Di Caprio as Romeo

Juliet was played by Kerry-born actress Jessie Buckley. Not necessarily a newcomer to the national stage, she was a newcomer on my radar as young Irish actresses. Originally from Killarney, she first performed in the local musical societies, participated in AIMs (Association of Irish Musical Societies) awards, and later went on to study at RADA in London. Buckley’s portrayal of Juliet is slightly more mature than others. Evidently, we know that the character of Juliet was just shy of 13 years old when she met her love, Romeo. Here, the relationship seems natural, modern, and mature, rather than the naivety we see in other productions. What is also interesting is how they used Buckley’s natural Irish accent for the performance. 

Never have I seen a Shakespearean production in the UK that has deliberately chosen this as a performance asset. In a previous article, I spoke with Derek Murphy from DK Delights, about his life as a performer in London. He acknowledged the ability to be “original” because he is Irish, however this pigeonholes you to a certain extent, especially with English productions.

A part of the reason why I find this so interesting is because, as a theatre professional, I aim to portray truth. By using Jessie’s natural accent, I think it makes it a more truthful production.

Another stand out performer for me (and they were all equally brilliant) was Deborah Findlay and her subtle portrayal of the Nurse. Overall, the character, for me, was never very interesting. Similar to other “minor” characters in Shakespeare, the Nurse is essentially there to progress the plot. In this way, the Nurse assists in the meeting of the two star-crossed lovers and also acts as a support and a mother figure to Juliet. 

In this production, the subtle and natural performance of Findlay goes hand in hand with the emphasis on  the importance of relationships, made by the director. Nurse and Juliet share a beautiful bond and certainly when we see Nurse hug Juliet’s lifeless body on the bed, we truly get a sense of love and pain.

The cast also include Adrian Lester (as Prince), Lloyd Hutchinson (as Lord Capulet); Colin Teirney (as Lord Montague); Fisayo Akinade (as Mercutio); Tamsin Greig (as Lady Capulet), as well as others. 

The aspect I want to highlight however, is the way in which this production was filmed. 

I have attended The National on other occasions, notably to see a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. This show was absolutely massive, When I say massive I mean that the staging was extraordinary, with explosions, fire, a revolving set, live music, special effects, you name it! But did it tell this classic story well? Well, no. It was clear to me that although they threw all the bells and whistles at it that they possibly could, the end result had a lack of intimacy and true humanity. 

In Romeo and Juliet, in contrast, the lack of set, audience, and overall scale really stripped the story back to its essence: a love story intertwined in tragedy. 

A stand out scene for me was how they depicted the marriage between the lovers: surrounded by dozens of candles, and selectively focusing on the beauty of the two actors, not their surroundings. We get a very loose sense of the location. For scenes in Juliet’s home, there is a minimalist set, with a rustic, Greek feel, however bare and cold. The space is lit in a very naturalistic way, but the setting is far from natural. 

The iconic balcony scene is a beautiful piece of work with a very simple portrayal of what I can only refer to as a stereotypical ‘stage’ set. A large moon hangs on the backdrop of the scene, Juliet stands on a balcony, (very clearly attached to a flat) and Romeo climbs what looks like a normal work ladder. With lighting stunningly depicting the dusk of night, again we are stripped of preconceived notions about what theatre is and what natural life is. 

Godwin stated:

“There had been discussions between myself and Rufus Norris [artistic director of the National] about transforming the space into a studio and doing something digital in a way that kept the essence of the stage.”

Similarly when Romeo is banished, he exits the main playing area of the other characters, going behind a large automatic loading bay door to  a very bare space, scarcely lit. This very effectively adds to an overall sense of loneliness and abandonment. It fascinates me that the creative team were able to achieve this with something as simple as the stage itself and the actual architecture of the building. 

Another aspect that intrigued me was the cinematography. As I mentioned there was never a sense of a front-on, audience view of the stage. Nor were close ups zoomed in from a distance. This was an up close and personal shoot. They produced scenes that focused on pure emotion and reaction. Very often in Shakespeare, I have found the focus is on the words and this is evidently important because of the style and requirements of this kind of theatre. As with Samuel Beckett, the audience hangs on the words of the master writer. However, by releasing the constraints of this norm and exploring the true emotion encapsulated in the narrative, the filming leads us into a world we feel we are a part of; hand held camera work and exciting montages to convey a very modern yet timeless aesthetic. 

It really stood out to me, the possibilities of theatre and film and how they intertwine. This is the first production I have seen that really dove into what it means to interlink the two. Too often we separate the art forms because of their different natures; theatre is live and film is recorded. Yet, I never felt while watching this production that it wasn’t live, or alive in the moment. It encapsulated all things theatre for me. I am aware that not every theatre has this opportunity for the expense, facility, and distribution. However I do wish to highlight the significance of this advancement and how this can be adapted to Irish audiences. Such a novel approach would allow more access to theatre, art, and storytelling and bring Irish theatre through to the 21st century, where multi disciplinary creatives form new understandings of what it is to make work.

Watch the trailer here :

KathyAnn Murphy
KathyAnn Murphy

KathyAnn is a playwright, theatre and film designer and director from Co. Wicklow. She holds an MA in Theatre Practise and a BA in Design for Stage and Screen. She is a third level tutor, drama teacher and is currently studying a Diploma in Irish Studies. KathyAnn has a great interest in the arts, social justice, history and music.

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