One of the greatest love stories ever told? No. Two annoying rich kids falling in love with the idea of being in love and fucking up everything they touch in the process? Yes.
With the arguable exception of the Baz Luhrmann film version, most productions of this play don’t seem to share my view. It’s always played so straight and earnestly that I slightly want to vomit almost continuously. And, when the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season was announced, the inclusion of this piece was the thing I was least excited about. I was pretty convinced that not even my oft stated and increasingly ardent Branagh obsession could make me love this play.
And indeed it didn't. I still think Romeo and Juliet is over hyped, over sentimental and over cooked. So in some ways it slightly irks me to have to report that, despite all that, I thoroughly enjoyed this production.
Mostly this is because - finally - here is a production of Romeo and Juliet which treats the story with the irreverance it deserves. This is the first production of this play I've ever seen which treats the silly teenage 'lovers' as exactly that, playing up the comedy and the ridiculousness in a text which is riper with the potential for laughs than most directors seem to realise. Occasionally it's slightly overdone (I had some issues with Meera Syal's Nurse who once or twice tipped a bit too far into pantomime territory for me) but by and large the tone is subtly struck. Huge kudos to KenBran and his co-director/choreographer Rob Ashford for their quietly revelatory approach.
The best scene of the piece sums up this approach perfectly: the famous balcony scene ('Romeo, Romeo' etc etc) played between a slightly pissed Juliet swigging a bottle of wine and a wryly nervous Romeo, fawning over her every hiccup. It turns the supposedly most romantic scene in the play into mild, but very funny, farce and I absolutely loved it for doing so.
This is also a very sexy production, aesthetically and atmospherically. Christopher Oram's design borrows heavily from a compilation of every Fellini film ever and suitably evokes a dangerous fringe of La Dolce Vita. The 1950s setting definitely works in the production's favour, especially in the underplayed cool of the costumes. I'm 100% in favour of anything that puts Richard Madden in a slim fitting suit and/or a leather jacket.
Speaking of whom, a lot of the print reviews really stuck the rapier, as it were, into Madden's Romeo but for my money he's one of the highlights of the cast. He's particularly strong when there's more comedy for him to play with but is certainly no slouch in the heavier, more dramatic moments either. In a strong ensemble, Ansu Kabia's Tybalt, all dangerous bravado and swagger, and Michael Rouse's violent and threatening Capulet are the scene stealers; the latter in particular providing one of the production's most striking and effecting scenes when he brutally enforces his will on his daughter that she will marry the nonentity that is Count Paris. Derek Jacobi's Mercutio is entertainingly cynical and Lily James' Juliet suitably beautiful (and irritating) but neither, for my money, warrant the hype they've received in the proper reviews.
There are bits of this production that don't work - the distracting sound design, the slightly cringeworthy ball scene, the random insertion of songs and bursts of Italian - but overall it's really great fun. And it made me not hate Romeo and Juliet as a play, which is worthy of note enough on its own, frankly. I would recommend it, even to my most cynical of friends. And I have some very cynical friends.
Romeo and Juliet is part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company's Plays at the Garrick season and is on until 13th August. It has a live cinema broadcast on 7th July.