‘Great Performances’ goes on with ‘Romeo & Juliet’

Rick's Reviews

Jessie Buckley (left) and Josh O’Connor star in “Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet.” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

One of the casualties of the pandemic has been the lack of live theater whether that has been on a local or national level. It seems that necessity caused by COVID can be the mother of reinvention.

England’s National Theatre had planned to stage a contemporary version of “Romeo & Juliet” that could have been enjoyed by thousands. After the pandemic shut the theater doors, the company looked for a way to present the production. That’s when they reached out to the PBS series “Great Performances.”

The show will now go on as this unique rendering of William Shakespeare’s tragedy – that evolves from its prologue set in a stripped‑down rehearsal room into a cinematic journey using on‑ and offstage spaces at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre – can be seen at 9 p.m. April 23 on PBS. This edition of “Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet” airs locally on ValleyPBS.

“Romeo & Juliet” director Simon Goodwin says, “It was going to be one of the biggest shows of the year in the Olivier Theatre.  And, so, when it closed, we felt this extraordinary story of love, rage, and sacrifice would be a very fitting show to bring to the world and that it would lend itself to this kind of treatment, this radical new vision of trying to bring the stage and screen together.”

The new production of “Romeo & Juliet” stars Josh O’Connor (“The Crown”) and Jessie Buckley (“Fargo”) as Romeo and Juliet. The ensemble cast includes Fisayo Akinade as Mercutio, Shubham Saraf as Benvolio, Deborah Findlay as the Nurse, David Judge as Tybalt, Alex Mugnaioni as Paris, Ellis Howard as Sampson, Tamsin Greig as Lady Capulet and Lucian Msamati as the Friar.

The roles of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers has been presented on stage, TV and film by thousands of performers. O’Connor was able to forget about what others had done with the role because of the unusual way Godwin staged the production.

While the words are the same, Godwin goes from a minimalist stage setting for some scenes to moments that look like they were produced for the big screen. It becomes a way to maintain the original story while giving is at times very modern and at times very surreal.

Godwin says, “Shakespeare’s potential for reinvention is endless. Over 17 days of filming, the company was united by a sense of shared exploration. As well as being given intimate access to the thoughts and feelings of characters, we were able to bring to life remarkable, forgotten spaces at the National Theatre. Desire, dreams and destiny came together to make ‘Romeo & Juliet’ sing in an entirely new way.”

Despite being in such an original version of the often-produced production, Buckley refused to watch other versions of the play that were done for TV or film. Buckley’s certain she would have found the other work brilliant and that would have been a disaster for her.

She got past her fears because Buckley wanted to find out what love means in the context of this story. She got her answers through what she considers a very unique experience.

“It wasn’t a theatre piece and it wasn’t a film piece.  I have never been in a situation where from the beginning of rehearsals the cinematographer is in a complete collaboration with you as well,” Buckley says. “Even though the space and the lens and the theatrical space is smaller, the emotional space, and the story, especially with this story, is huge, this love is massive and it is Greek, in so many ways.

“To be able to hold the enormity of this love and feeling inside the frame of a camera and be very, very in tune within – I have never really had that experience with a cinematographer before with that.”

O’Connor is certain this production would have been just as powerful had it been produced in the original pre-pandemic fashion. The only difference he can see is that there would have been an audience on hand to see – and experience – the tragic end to this love story.

It was the final scene between Romeo and Juliet that worried the actors the most. Every day of the shoot was emotional but the finale – the last scene filmed after eight weeks of work – is the most critical. O’Connor found the moment to be a little weird.

“It is an odd one because you are not performing with another actor.  Jessie’s right there, but she’s dead, I think she’s dead.  So, I love acting with Jessie, but then she’s dead,” O’Connor says. “And then obviously Jessie had to act to kind of a floppy, dead Romeo.

“It is an amazing kind of climax.  I think what I found really haunting, actually, I remember inevitably is the next day we have to lie on that too, Jessie and I, with our eyes closed and listen to Tamsin Greig and Lucian and all the company come in and respond to the death of Romeo and Juliet.  I remember feeling that intense sadness of that scene was really powerful.”

It’s a powerful scene that can be seen because of a collaboration between England’s National Theatre and “Great Performances.”

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