I booked a ticket to see this the moment they went on sale for two reasons; firstly, I wanted to see Richard Madden and Lilly James act together again since I adored Cinderella and another opportunity to see them under Kenneth Branagh’s direction wasn’t to be passed up; secondly, I’d not seen Romeo and Juliet on stage before (I am a child of my time, the Baz Luhrmann version was all I needed for many years) and I thought it was an excellent opportunity to rectify that.
However when I heard that Mr Branagh had cast Derek Jacobi as Mercutio I was more than a little confused. Mercutio was Romeo’s contemporary, his partner in crime, his best mate – could that dynamic be captured given the age difference between Derek and Richard? I should have realised that age is but a number to good actors because Derek Jacobi stole the show and I think Shakespeare would have adored how he played Mercutio. He was funny, entrancing, larger than life in the best way possible, and above all the friendship between Romeo & Mercutio was completely believable.
Richard Madden was also a thoroughly engaging, likeable Romeo and also very beautiful to look at. And before you say it I’m aware that the attractive qualities of the leading man are not the be all and end all of a theatre production, however I was in the second row of the stalls and it really was very lovely view and greatly enhanced my experience. Sadly Lily James was ill the day I went, so I didn’t get to see her and Richard reunited, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the play a jot – her understudy Katheryn Wilder was a glorious Juliet, capturing her youth and naivety and the force of the attraction between herself and Romeo. I must also mention Samuel Valentine, Jack Colgrave Hirst, and Meera Syal here, who were all excellent as Friar Laurence, Benvolio and Nurse respectively. Meera especially had me laughing in all the right places.
I was very impressed with the staging of this production. Setting it in 1950’s Verona was genius, not only for the huge number of parallels between post-War Italy and the Italy of Shakespeare’s imagination that aided the oppressive, electric atmosphere that fed the play itself but also for the costumes. For they were glorious, especially the sharp cut suits and delightful hats! The music that was used aided, rather than fought with, the direction of the play and the fight scenes were truly brilliant.