Two households, both alike in dignity…
Better make that three with Kenneth Branagh. An institution in and of himself, Branagh directs Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick, the latest in his 2015-16 season of in house shows. He’s not the only houehold name to attached to this production, which also boasts Derek Jacobi, Meera Syal, Richard Madden and Lily James. With such a strong cast, you expect an outstanding adaptation. What results is some glimmers of greatness, but overall mediocrity.
Transposed to the 1950s, Branagh’s Verona is seductive and stylish. The men strut around in suits and sunglasses, the women in beautiful dresses. The setting is brought out entirely in Christopher Oram’s costumes. The set itself does nothing to convey Branagh’s vision. Marbel columns descend and ascend with as much frequency as the tubes thundering past. Except they serve less purpose. The use of the curtain in Juliet’s ‘death’ scene is to be commended, though Branagh essentially does away with the balcony scene. Yes, he stays true to the text in which it never mentions a balcony. But he does not offer a particularly worthwhile alternative staging. While staying true to some aspects of the text, there are a few additions and changes here and there. Juliet’s song at the Capulets’ Ball being a notable example. This worked surprisingly well, having awkwardness and lightness to it making Juliet more endearing. One thing which didn’t work as well is another song, though this one is actually from the text. Mercutio’s ‘An Old Hare Hoar’ song has a different kind of awkwardness, one which tries too hard. It’s all so over-rehearsed: Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo swing to and fro, with spot on harmonies and spot on choreography. All too polished for these ‘boys’. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for a woman to walk past just so they can sing this song they’ve been rehearsing for months. Verona’s answer to Jools Holland and his rhythm and blues orchestra.
Mercutio brings me on to a major feature of Branagh’s production: the age difference. I was skeptical at first about how an older Mercutio would work, but I was pleasantly surprised. Jacobi’s Mercutio is more mature and whose words now carry more meaning, particularly the infamous Queen Mab speech. He’s the one who seen the ‘ancient grudge’ grow between the families, he’s the one who has loved, and he’s the one who has fought. This Mercutio is more a pacifist than a pricksword. The normally headstrong characterisation is given to Benvolio, a justified reading given Mercutio’s own berating of his temperament:
‘thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes‘
Indeed, it is Benvolio in this version who draws on Tybalt to fight, not to keep the peace. With generational divides such a prominent theme here, it does expose some flaws in other casting. Arguably, James and Maden are too old to play the parts. While James plays it as if she were thirteen (though the cartwheels are a bit reductive), Maden looks visibly older. This and other things made you really assess the relationship in this production and realise just how little time they actually spend together. And in the scenes they were together, I struggled to find a sincere connection between the two. More lust than love. Which their story is not, at least in my opinion.
James brings youth and life to Juliet, though errs towards immaturity (again, the cartwheels). Her delivery of the verse is captivating though. In his moments of surety, Madden is a sure and safe Romeo, such as ‘I defy you stars’. In moments of Romeo’s uncertainty though, this too accompanies his portrayal. His delivery of the ‘O brawling love’ speech, my favourite from the play, was rushed and thrown away, mocked rather than expressed. Jacobi traverses the verse with ease, bringing new readings to light with his portrayal of Mercutio. Finally, I leave Syal’s Nurse until last. Because I genuinely forgot about her. The Nurse should be a stand out role, gifted the best comedic lines in the play. Syal draws the laughs, but is forgettable.
Verdict: Revolutionary in terms of casting, but distinctly average in all other respects.