Last night, Kenneth Branagh's acclaimed new production of Romeo and Juliet was broadcast to cinemas around the world, courtesy of National Theatre Live. Starring Lily James and Richard Madden, with Derek Jacobi as Mercutio, it definitely sounded worth a watch, so my sister and I went into Liverpool to soak up a bit of culture. It was all booked up at our local cinema - which is impressive, considering this is Shakespeare we're talking about, and people hardly go the cinema anymore anyway. I've been to a couple of live cinema screenings in the past (Macbeth and The Tempest, mainly for Alexander Vlahos and Colin Morgan respectively - my sister's a big Merlin fan) and I'll admit that this time, I was partly there for Richard Madden. Imagine my dismay then, when Kenneth Branagh emerged before curtain up, to inform us all that our Romeo had done his back in (or was it his ankle?). Luckily however, he was determined to still perform, and they just had to change some of the staging. Cue sighs of relief.
This version of the play was set in 1950's Italy and filmed in Black and White, which gave it a real old Hollywood/film noir quality. The girls were in big skirts, the men in sharp suits and Juliet had some gorgeous 1950's style pyjamas. It was a very different version to anything I'd seen before but I loved the style, and the way that some of the scenes were interpreted. For example, Juliet knocks back a bottle of wine before the balcony scene - which sounds cringey but actually it worked. Making Juliet happily tipsy put a funny twist on an iconic moment without taking too much away from the romance. They were definitely going for a very teenage portrayal of the lovers and I thought both leads played it really well. The inclusion of music also added a lot - Juliet is singing at the party when Romeo sees her for the first time (Lily James has a really nice voice) and at one point Derek Jacobi's Mercutio breaks into a song and dance while Romeo and Benvolio click along. It was a bit random, yes, but funny.
On the subject of Derek Jacobi, I was sceptical. An old Mercutio, would it work? I'm no expert, but I thought it did. In a kind of trailer before the show started, Kenneth Branagh explained that they were going for a sort of ageing Oscar Wilde type - and being one of the big Shakespearean actors of our time, Derek Jacobi pulled it off with flair. I don't know if the fight scene between Mercutio and Tybalt quite convinced me, but other than that, it was all good. The smaller parts were all a bit different too - Friar Lawrence wasn't much older than Romeo, but I really enjoyed his portrayal, and Meera Syal almost stole the show as a flirtatious, more youthful nurse.
Overall, there wasn't much I could fault in this production. It might not be to everyone's taste, especially if you're a real purist, but I really enjoyed it. Critics were a bit sniffy about the young leads' ability to speak the verse, but I thought they did really well; Lily James is always charming and Richard Madden managed to bring likeability to Romeo, who let's face it, is usually pretty bland. The pair had great chemistry as always, the rest of the cast were great, the staging was seamless and I loved the costumes and styling. Romeo and Juliet is still playing at the Garrick Theatre, London until August 13th, and from what I saw last night, I'd say it's worth going to see if you get the chance.