“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Scene 2, Act 2
It’s strange how much fame and celebrity can influence our view of something, including in the world of theatre. Last weekend I had tickets to see Branagh’s production of Romeo and Juliet, starring Lily James (from Cinderella and Downton Abbey), but I arrived to a notice that unfortunately she was ill so we had an understudy. Naturally I was quite disappointed: I doubt, having seen previous productions of R&J before, I would have wanted to go if it hadn’t been for Lily James – I wanted to see what she would be like live on stage, particularly her relationship with Richard Madden playing Romeo, who played her Prince in Cinderella. I mean, even though Lily James is now well-known, it doesn’t mean that she isn’t a very good actress, and worked hard to get where she is now.
But I couldn’t help but deliberate why one actress makes such a difference to my opinion even before seeing the show. Naturally it is partly the feeling of a broken promise to see such a well-known actress, and the denied opportunity to see the full long-rehearsed production.
Nevertheless, the play was still good. The understudy Juliet, Kathryn Wilder, is young – only just out of acting school – and used this youth in her portrayal of Juliet. Having read some reviews of Lily James, it seems this is very different to her knowledgeable Juliet. But actually I liked the excited innocence Kathryn brought.
Derek Jacobi was another famous face that graced the stage of this production, in the surprising role of Mercutio. His different age to Romeo and Benvolio gave it a twist, but actually increased the humour of their dialogue, along with Mercutio’s madness.
However, my favourite performance was given by Meera Syal who played the Nurse. She is relatively well-known as a comedian, and she brings this comedy to the role too, particularly the bawdy nature, discarding the usual prim and proper received pronunciation expectation of Shakespeare.
The set worked well within the play, combined with the costume to create a setting that resembled a 50s-style Italian mafia. But this beautiful production design is what I expected by a highly anticipated West End production.
On the other hand, I did feel this production was lacking in innovation. R&J is a well-known play, giving every opportunity to explore new ideas, but it hardly ever happens. There were moments that I thought were new and interesting, like the more violent nature of Lord Capulet and the inclusion of Italian, to emphasise the setting (I really liked this!).
I would love to have seen Lily James, to compare to the performance I saw, but given such a vital actor was missing I was satisfied with the production, though not awed or overwhelmed.
Earlier this year I also saw Branagh’s production of The Winter’s Tale which I reviewed here.