Directed by Kenneth Branagh
It was an evening where the old met the new and pretended to like each other. The tiny foyer of The Garrick, looking and feeling as it did in 1895 when The Importance of Being Earnest opened down the road, is now guarded by security, square-jawed and muscled, perversely relishing the task of rummaging through innocent handbags. It was the same on stage, where Derek Jacobi showed a few young people how to act.
And it was a very modern beginning when a sheet fell from the programme regretting that Richard Madden, due to play Romeo, was unable to perform. Subsequent research revealed that he has a “bad ankle”. So bad is his ankle that he has left the production altogether. I can’t be alone in smelling a rat; didn’t Brian Blessed play Lear a couple of years ago twenty minutes after having a heart attack? Isn’t the tradition that actors keep their ailments to themselves and just get on with it?
Did the show work? No, there was too much bad casting and too much bad acting. Was it worth seeing? Yes, the company cared and fought, sometimes too hard, for every moment. If they had sore ankles they kept it a secret.
People who know nothing about theatre and care less know the balcony scene. Two serious, shy adolescents, alone in a garden at night, embarrassed and awkward but ardent, each equally obsessed with the other. They inhabit an enchanted, private world that can be visited, if at all, only once.
As far as I know Shakespeare never attempted this kind of scene again; his love scenes, and falling in love scenes, are anguished, unfulfilled (at the time at least), triangle-ridden, painful clashes of unrequited passion. But not here. This scene is devastatingly simple. That’s why it’s so hard.
Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi
Neither actor got to the garden, nor even bought a ticket. As a dramatic event the evening died here. Lily James is mostly an assured actress; she has detail and an effortlessly rich voice. Only on the balcony did things go wrong. She spoke at a level that could be heard several streets away, never mind by the Nurse behind the curtain. Does Juliet really want everyone in the neighbourhood to know her business?
I wasn’t able to identify any effort to embrace the vulnerability required. It is possible to say “tis almost morning” without breaking stride or glancing at the sky, as she did, and make sense, except she didn’t. It was just another line. By then it seemed the actress was more concerned with getting the tiresome scene over with.
The new (and apparently fully fit) Romeo had an excellent start. He brought on the right kind of energy, listening and thus talking not reciting. Only during and after the balcony scene did he lose his way and become a photocopy of himself. Acting is like that. Each evening is a breathing animal. Once dead there is no comeback, even with two hours to go.
Never have I seen such a dreadful Nurse; a tangled, tension-riddled, inflected travesty of a simple woman. The stage was a mess when she was on it. Lady Capulet I couldn’t hear. She made noise but didn’t breathe. A brilliant female Peter. She listened; every action was a reaction. Where are the leads for this actress? I would like to see her Juliet.
Casting Derek Jacobi as Mercutio was not innovative or courageous, just daft. What needed to be testosterone-filled was instead 77 and camp. It made a nonsense of the exposition. Romeo and Benvolio, young lads up for anything, get into their best pulling gear and head off to a party on Saturday night – and take this old bloke with them?
He should have played the Friar, who was bizarrely cast as a young, anxious man. But … who cares? I suspect Jacobi, who fills every moment and makes it look simple, has never missed a performance due to a slight injury or a worse one.
Did he take the role because he felt his reputation needed adding to, or did he need the money? Why put his old bones through the stress?
I suggest he might just love acting…
His text is interpreted in a way that suits him, but it is an object lesson nevertheless. The talent is greater than the ego, though the latter may be large. When the reverse applies – perhaps to Richard Madden, who seems happy with the absurd justification for his absence, and perhaps also to Lily James, too precious to play a good scene honestly – chaos reigns.
To take a non-publicly funded Shakespeare into the West End is a marvellous, courageous thing. For nearly 50 years the State – by its financial policy – has decreed that only one company should be subsidised to produce Shakespeare and, indeed, uses this justification to refuse funding to others. As a result that company has become complacent and stale. If Romeo and Juliet is a challenge to the status quo then it is to be celebrated. I hope there is more to come.