The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s residency of The Garrick Theatre is drawing to a close. Early on, I was exceptionally fortunate to see their production of A Winter’s Tale; though not a favourite play of mine, I thought the production was excellent and the acting – especially of Sir Branagh himself – enthralling.
It was with great anticipation, then, that I made my way back to the Garrick last month to watch Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Having been bowled over with The Winter’s Tale, I expected the same from this production, especially with Derek Jacobi as Mercutio and the much-lauded pairing of Richard Madden and Lily James in the eponymous roles.
The setting for this production is made much of in the programme: the inversion from 1590s to 1950s Italy, the poverty-stricken society and the post-war Italian chic. But to me it added very little. Even worse were the moments of anachronism in the production that seemed to unsettle the context and destabilise the interpretation. The modern dance/techno music and the stylised movements of the Capulet party scene (reminiscent of the London production of American Psycho: The Musical), though interesting, didn’t really suit the rest of the production. It seemed even more incongruous alongside the odd reliance on swords as the primary form of weaponry, which resulted in us forgetting we were in 1950s Italy. I’m unsure of the decision-making process behind this – an allusion to the timelessness of the story itself, perhaps – but it just didn’t quite sit right with me.
The actual staging was, however, exceptionally effective. Extractable stone columns were raised or lowered, enabling swift yet purposeful scene changes whilst also ensuring the focus was never too far from the actors themselves. Simple yet effective, as I believe all good theatre staging should be, and a complement to the performance rather than an intrusion.
But without a doubt, the show was stolen not but the up-and-coming actors but by Derek Jacobi as Mercutio. There are times when I have been disappointed by those I consider to be legendary actors; this was certainly not one of them. Witty, playful and verbally dexterous, his Mercutio was central to the first half of the play being the most humorous production of Romeo and Juliet I have ever seen, which juxtaposed beautifully with the severity of the second half. I am all in favour of actors plying their trade across mediums, but it seems clear to me from a number of productions that theatre acting is by far the best grounding. Madden and James were good and would have probably seemed great amongst other company, but it’s awfully difficult to compare to such mastery of the craft.
My one gripe was his death. I must admit to having fears of a flashback to his role in Frasier, but knew that to be unlikely. Yet whether it was a directorial decision or some other influence, Mercutio leaving the stage by foot and hurling out the curse ‘a plague o’ both your houses’ to a stage devoid of any Capulets seemed an odd choice and not really fitting for a man on the verge of death.
For those who have seen the production, I hope that you were able to appreciate the genius of Jacobi; for those that haven’t, I would strongly recommend going for his performance alone.
I must admit to having left the theatre with a sense of ambivalence: I love the play and thought that this particular version lacked the expected flair, punch or whatever else I had been expecting from a Branagh production. Yet I was euphoric at having seen such a wonderful actor – and one I have admired for some time – doing his thing in such a magnificent way. Bravo, Sir Jacobi, Bravo. I’m now off to invest in a pair of those two-tone brogues.