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Romeo and Juliet review – National Theatre’s first film is an ingenious triumph 

The National Theatre’s first foray into film-making is a very different proposition to an NT Live recording. It is a production created solely for the screen. A note at the end tells us it was shot “on a single stage, over 17 days, during a global pandemic”. But no disclaimer is needed. Poised and adventurous, this Romeo and Juliet is a hybrid wonder and full of intelligent invention. Emily Burns’s adaptation is sleek and at times feels lean but that is a necessary sacrifice for tension and pace. Director Simon Godwin has given the film a remarkable sense of movement and played with theatrical artifice in deft ways.

The opening shot shows the actors convening on the stage for rehearsals, props and dressing rails strewn around them, with the safety curtain in sight. Further in, rehearsal shots are incorporated into the production to remind us of the film’s mechanics but none of these elements seem laboured.

One of the most powerful soliloquies, which features Juliet on the verge of drinking the potion that will bring on the semblance of death, features a circle of actors around her on stage. The scene retains all its emotional power, and we are not pulled away from Juliet’s inner state but brought closer. The actors in the blurred peripheries appear ghostly, as if she has already entered a different dimension.

There are some constructed sets – drawing rooms and bedrooms – but the film looks best when characters are lit against its black backdrop, evoking the drama of old master paintings. Tim Sidell’s photography appears like a moving painting at times and Michael Bruce’s music is just as beautiful. Filmed on and around the Lyttelton stage, it has a claustrophobic feel that not only resonates with lockdown but also captures the choking sense of fate closing in on the young lovers.

Only at times does it seem too poised, its characters sometimes lacking the messy emotional excesses that lead to the play’s many tragedies. Jessie Buckley, as Juliet, stands out as the film’s heart and soul. Intense and ardent, she is a strong, rebellious daughter who verges on the punkish, and even when she is at her most vulnerable never appears weak. Josh O’Connor comes out of the shadow of The Crown’s Prince Charles, the role for which he is best known, yet seems grave and emotionally coiled. But together they gel and their instant love, sparked at a modern-day party at the Capulets’, is captivating.

Tamsin Greig’s Lady Capulet is a controlling mother: cold, imperious and a little too menacing. Other characters, from Fisayo Akinade’s passionate, gay Mercutio to Lucian Msamati’s Friar, Adrian Lester’s Prince and Deborah Findlay’s warmly clucking Nurse, are finely rendered.

Commercially, the scale and resource of this venture can hardly serve as a blueprint for other theatres to follow, but artistically it is just exquisite. If this is a first venture into a pandemic-resistant revenue stream for the National, it sets the bar high.

Romeo and Juliet is on Sky Arts in the UK on 4 April and on PBS in the US on 23 April.

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