‘Romeo & Juliet’ lives anew on ‘Great Performances’

PBS series presents contemporary staging by London's National Theatre

Jessie Buckley, Lucian Msamati and Josh O’Connor (from left) star in “Romeo & Juliet,” airing as part of “Great Performances” Friday on PBS (check local listings).

Some plays are staged so many times, the challenge only gets greater to bring something different to each new version.

London’s National Theatre has done that with its new take on “Romeo & Juliet,” and director Simon Godwin and writer Emily Burns’ modernized adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic about young lovers from opposing families is a PBS “Great Performances” offering Friday, April 23 (check local listings). Josh O’Connor (“The Crown”) and Jessie Buckley (“Chernobyl”) have the title roles as the film unfolds in rooms, hallways, staircases and corners throughout the National’s Lyttelton Theatre. Lucian Msamati also appears as the Friar.

Also the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., Godwin explains that his “Romeo & Juliet” was slated for live National Theatre performances before the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was going to be one of the biggest shows of the year,” he says, “so when (the location) closed, we felt this extraordinary story of love, rage and sacrifice would be a very fitting show to bring to the world … and that it would lend itself to this kind of treatment, this radical new vision of trying to bring the stage and screen together.”

For the many previous “Romeo & Juliet” renderings, actor O’Connor reasons, “I still thought the most important (element) was love. Very often, I feel like the youthfulness of Romeo and Juliet is a lazy way of answering the question of why they are willing to die for each other. It is like if you are young and naive and have that first love, you would die for each other. I think it is potentially more interesting (to ask) what is love and what is faith and what is the belief in life beyond life on Earth that leads these two young adults to death.”

Fellow star Buckley adds, “Because it was so intimate yet so massive, it really challenged you to get into the most minute detail of what each word was. Each word had to be as big as the stage, but for just the camera, and there was a real pleasure in being able to be that delicate but also that big with each of these scenes and words.”

Still, pandemic protocols were in effect during filming, all the more important in a relatively confined work area. “We were faced with this unusual challenge of filming the whole of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ indoors, never leaving the theater,” Godwin notes. “It ended up with a certain kind of puppetry whereby you want to see the strings, you want to be in an imaginative world, but you also want to be reminded that you are still actually in a theatre. And that kind of duality was very meaningful for us.”

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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