Romeo and Juliet is the penultimate production in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s residence at the Garrick Theatre. Branagh does not perform this time but co-directs a star studded cast including Lily James, Meera Syal and Derek Jacobi with Rob Ashford.
This play had received mixed reviews so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it just goes to show that critics are sometimes wrong because I LOVED this production. It was fast paced, with plenty of humour in the first half, and I loved the little touches like Italian being spoken, and church bells ringing during the interval. I also gasped when Juliet woke, despite of course knowing that it would happen, which shows how engrossed I was in the performances. The set is minimal but effective, giving a taste of chic 950s Italy with the men in sharp suits and the women in shawls and sunglasses.
As for the performances, the one disappointment was that Richard Madden sadly was indisposed as he’d injured his ankle. However, his understudy Tom Hanson was excellent. Lily James was also good, but as she always seems to play young and innocent girls that wasn’t a surprise. Meera Syal was very funny and motherly as the nurse, but Derek Jacobi stole the show as a camp and dapper Mercutio. It may seem a little strange for an older actor to play Mercutio, but his lines seemed to suit Jacobi’s age. Other good choices for casting were Michael Rouse as an intimidating Capulet, and Samuel Valentine as Friar Laurence. I’d only ever seen the Friar played by an older actor, but making him young worked well, as he seemed more naive and therefore it could be argued that his mistakes when trying to help the lovers made more sense.
It can’t be easy to excite audiences with a 400 year old play that is so well known, but Branagh certainly managed it this time.