“O Romeo Romeo…” – a review of Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet

Artcile by Rachael Richardson-Bullock 27.07.16


If you’ve read my streaming theatre article, you’ll know I love Shakespeare! So when my best friend bought tickets for us to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet streamed live from The Garrick in the Spa Centre, I could not say no! We were the youngest people in the cinema, but we didn’t care; plus the screen was packed, which made us happy.

Branagh is Shakespearean acting royalty, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company at aged just 23. On stage and screen he has played a number of roles including Hamlet, Henry V and Romeo. This time though, he is directing. Teaming up once again with Lilly James, Richard Madden and Derek Jacobi who Branagh also directed in 2015’s live action Cinderella.

Now, I have a confession to make. I didn’t like Cinderella, despite my huge excitement for it. Visually it was stunning, but unfortunately I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry between James and Madden. Their romance seemed a bit forced, a bit too quiet, a bit unbelievable…yes I’m aware it’s a fairy tale! So I was a bit apprehensive. Perhaps without the restrictions of a children’s story and the U BBFC rating they could blossom together as actors, and that they did!

Before I move onto them, let me first talk about the play itself. I have seen many adaptations so was intrigued to see how Branagh would put his stamp on it. Initially when the cinema attendant told us the play would be screened in black and white, I was disappointed. However, this quickly subsided as it became obvious what Branagh was offering us. This wasn’t Shakespeare, this was an Italian drama, punctuated with much beautifully spoken Italian by actors in 1950s attire and staged as if it was a film noir or silent film. These elements seem random, but when they were thrown together under Branagh’s direction the play truly shined; it was enticing, it was modern and stunning to look at, which is not always a given for Shakespeare.

Though Branagh had announced before the play started that Madden had an ankle injury and would try his best, there was no sign whatsoever of his discomfort or fragility. He was unbelievably relaxed and genuine; I have never seen a Romeo like him. The language rolled off his tongue as if it was all he had ever spoken, his comedic timing was faultless and his passion was heart breaking. I would go so far to say he’s the best Romeo I’ve seen…yes even ahead of Leonardo DiCaprio!

I was concerned about James at first, I’ll be honest. At the party where she meets Romeo, she came across as a little whiny. She is of course meant to be playing a 14 year old, but I’ve never liked the dumb teenager interpretation, for me it spoils the story. However, when she stepped onto the balcony, she was entirely different. She spoke maturely, even with some comedy thrown in, and the chemistry between herself and Madden was electric. As the play went on, became darker and more challenging for Juliet, James excelled. I was immensely impressed.

I sobbed at the end. Madden’s lonely death wasn’t overacted, it was emotional and raw. James’ too, a little rushed perhaps, but still well timed and executed. Branagh did not glamorise their deaths, bringing the tragedy to its rightful conclusion.

Branagh’s real achievement here, for me at least, was that he made this play real to me in a way I have never experienced before. It was new again and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Romeo and Juliet runs until the end of August at The Garrick in London. For information please click here. I’m tempted to go to London myself and see them in the flesh and in colour!

Rachael Richardson-Bullock is a novelist and blogger living in Leamington Spa.