Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Branagh's Romeo and Juliet; A View from Islington North

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Branagh's Romeo and Juliet; A View from Islington North

Article excerpt

Out come the stars in Kenneth Branagh's Romeo and Juliet . He musters a well-drilled, celebrity-ridden crew but they can't quite get the rocket off the launchpad. The stylish setting evokes Italy in the early 1950s. The girls wear New Look frocks and the boys sport tight slacks and shirtsleeves. Christopher Oram's muted set has bland marble walls and tasteless squared-off pillars like a modern dictator's palace on the Euphrates. A rare failure.

Romeo is played by Game of Thrones inmate Richard Madden, who seems a handsome enough specimen, but Branagh might have asked him to act with his soul rather than his forearms. And he looks too mature. To kill a rival and throw away your life for a 13-year-old you've met three times is the lunatic act of a dippy kid, not the choice of a sleek adult with a designer shirt and hand-made shoes. Branagh's textual choices create problems early on. He retains the Queen Mab speech (an anthology piece that deserves to be ditched) and he follows this delay with a cabaret song to start the Capulet's masked ball. All this takes a thumb-twiddling 20 minutes when the story needs to get moving. The casting of Derek Jacobi as the young hothead Mercutio seems half-genius and half-prank. Jacobi has fun camping it up in a white tuxedo but when he croons a cabaret song in the marketplace he lets self-indulgence get the better of artistic discipline.

Lily James captures the intensity and loopiness of Juliet even though her erotic thrashings-about carry a hint of the web-cam starlet. Her mother, Lady Capulet, is played by a stately Merisa Berenson who seems just a teeny bit older than the 26 years specified in the text as her ladyship's age. Michael Rouse's Capulet comes across as a candidate for the sex offenders' register. He's a raging, spitting proto-Othello, and in his final scene he strips down to his vest and leaps on a prone Juliet, almost dry-humping the helpless girl on the floor. This is plain nasty rather than illuminating. Merisa Berenson should have half-nelsoned him and bitten the bastard's ear off.

What the show lacks is a dominant personality to compel our attention and unify the atmosphere. Into the vacancy tiptoes Meera Syal (as the Nurse) to pilfer every scene without turning it into a solo production. Wise work. Her sidekick Peter (Kathryn Wilder) gets huge laughs from a minuscule role. One to watch.

A View from Islington North is a slate of new political playlets. Director Max Stafford-Clark arranges them in ascending order of quality. …

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