Romeo & Juliet with Josh O’Connor & Jessie Buckley – review

Josh O’Connor & Jessie Buckley shine in fast-moving Shakespeare film

★★★

Production photo of Josh O'Connor and Jessie Buckley in the National Theatre's film of Romeo and Juliet
Jessie Buckley & Josh O’Connor in Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Rob Youngson

The National Theatre‘s Romeo & Juliet is another of the hybrids of theatre and film that have emerged during lockdown. In this case, William Shakespeare‘s play, directed by Simon Godwin,  is a film but filmed in the Lyttleton Theatre and as if it’s a spontaneous development from the rehearsal room.

As film, it is beautiful. The backgrounds are nearly always plain , often grey or black. In fact the colours generally are blue or grey, with faces brightly lit from the side, appropriately like  17th century portraits. Credit for the design goes to Soutra Gilmour.

The two lovers are wild and rash, as they should be. Jessie Buckley is intense with passion, Josh O’Connor overwhelmed with emotion. They have great faces which is great for the close-ups. Their scenes together- the balcony, the wedding, the consummation (the film features a lengthy lovemaking only alluded to in the original play) are all believably romantic.

Thank goodness because this is a Romeo & Juliet that strips away all it can from the surrounding story of adults who should protect the youngsters but instead are misguided, self-centred and irresponsible. We also lose Shakespeare’s intention to emphasise the ultimate reconciliation of two warring factions as they acknowledge their part in the death of their young heirs.

Some of the most glorious poetry is filleted. There’s no ‘light from yonder window’  breaking in Emily Burns’ adaptation.  Rather than rely on the verse that remains, there is a great deal of music, as if the makers didn’t trust Shakespeare’s words to convey feeling. Having said that, the music, which includes Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is superb.

The editing of text and film means this Romeo & Juliet goes at a terrific pace which is good because, in this play, you need to be carried along by the speed with which the youngsters fall deeply in love, get married and (spoiler alert) commit suicide.

Of the older actors, I particularly liked Tamsin Greig, playing the part that was Lord Capulet in the original. She’s cold, calm, as softly spoken as a snake, verging on a pantomime villain.

Deborah Findlay as the Nurse and Lucian Msamati as Friar Laurence both convey the way the adults miscalculate the situation because of their own desire to meddle. The great Adrian Lester has so little to do as the Prince, because of the cuts, that a cynic might say he’s only there to provide a star name.

Romeo & Juliet can be seen on Sky Arts catch-up and on PBS on 23 April

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

 

Hansard starring Lindsay Duncan & Alex Jennings – review

Art on a human scale

★★★★★

Hansard in the Lyttelton Theatre of the National Theatre is what I love about theatre. Forget video screens, background music, special effects. This is simply two great actors live on stage telling a story to a live audience. For ninety unbroken minutes this couple bickers and takes swipes at each other until eventually they reveal what’s behind their fractured relationship. It’s art on a human scale.

Production shot from Hansard at the National Theatre with Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings
Alex Jennings & Lindsay Duncan in Hansard. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

And what’s amazing is that this is Simon Woods’ first play which makes its perfect structure and precise and funny dialogue all the more remarkable. And there’s confidence in how he handles his audience- he’s even bold enough to make a joke about plays with no interval. 

In case you don’t know, Hansard is the written record of all that is said in Parliament. But it doesn’t tell the full story. This play is about what’s not said. The story behind the legislation. The point where the personal and the political meet.

It’s 1988. Robin, a public schoolboy MP, arrives home for the weekend. His wife Diana seems unprepared for his arrival. She isn’t happy that his government has just passed section 28 which outlaws sympathetic teaching about homosexuality. He’s upset at how wild animals are wrecking his lawn. She lays into him, pretending she thinks he’s talking about what his government is doing to the country. There are many more crowd pleasing snipes at the public schoolboys who run the Conservative government and the country. For example, there’s a joke about how people who keep voting for them are like abused partners. It all sounds so contemporary despite being set 30 years ago. 

It’s clearly familiar ground this couple are going over, a bit like putting on old slippers, neither surprises the other, being amused even by each other’s insults.

Gradually the humour subsides without totally disappearing and the previously unspoken reason for the schism between them is revealed, followed by secrets that are deeply upsetting but show how much they have misunderstood one another in their anger.

I suspect Diana and Robin owe a debt to Edward Albee’s warring couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? but this war of words is less vicious or at least more civilised.

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings convince

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, directed by Simon Godwin, are top class. He is totally believable as the upper class husband who keeps his emotions battened down and reacts to everything in the modest self-deprecating way of those born to rule. (I was very impressed by his ability to first cook toast on an Aga and then eat it while still projecting his lines to the back of the circle.)

She too is upper class but while she enunciates vowels that could cut glass, her voice is strained by emotion suggesting she is close to the edge. Even so, she is in control enough to toy with her husband and give him sideways looks that could cut steak.

These are convincing characters in a real situation. What implications there are about the way we conduct our politics- her ineffective left wing words, his assumption of his right to govern, the need for understanding and common ground- are very subtly woven in. 

Hildegard Bechtler’s set, a naturalistic kitchen and dining area, uses the often intimidating width of the Lyttelton stage to great effect by bringing down the proscenium arch until it looks even wider, like a letterbox. Which means the warring couple seem at times miles apart. 

You might wonder why 1988, why not now? Certainly much of what is said in the play could refer to today. Common values, tolerance and liberal democracy are once again taking a bashing at the hands of public schoolboys. I guess one answer is that setting it in the past will stop it being dated. But it’s also an important reminder that government backed homophobia was present in Britain only 30 years ago and therefore how recent and possibly fragile gains in LGBT rights are.

Hansard is an excellent and an important play.

Hansard was at the National Theatre until 25 November 2019. An NTLive recording and can be seen at cinemas in January 2020.

Click here to watch the review on YouTube