BBC Complete Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet

Watching this BBC production of Romeo & Juliet it finally clicked with me why this is considered one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Firstly, it has the most sensuous, ravishing language in the Bard’s entire canon. There’s a reason why it’s become synonymous with romance itself. The language literally dances off the tongue, into the air, and into the vivid realm of imagination when spoken by actors capable of delivering the lines. But if the romanticism gives the play its velvety texture, then it’s the cynicism that rips it to shreds. Shakespeare was just too much of a genius to indulge in adolescent romance without stepping back and commenting on it. If the vows that the two lovers weave are the finely woven fabric, then Mercutio’s wit is the massive shears that continually cuts through it.

Like the others in this BBC series, R&J is a quasi-theatrical, quasi-cinematic adaptation made on a small budget. The sets are obviously artificial, but I’ve constantly marveled at the diversity in the series’ art designs and how perfectly they seem to fit the mood and atmosphere. R&J isn’t quite as accomplished as some of the others, more or less recreating the arch and marble sheen of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Comedy of Errors. The balcony scene gets the finest setting, with its terraced and garden greener enfolding the two young lovers. The dance scene is also given rather lavish treatment with the costumes and the masks.

But the real strength of this series lies in the professionalism of the actors and the lengthy runtimes, which manage to capture the grander scope of the Bard’s meticulously constructed 5-act plays. You really get a richer perspective of what makes these plays masterpieces with the longer runtimes as the intricacies of the plot and character development has more time to unfold and display their complexities. The casts have been consistently outstanding. Not always star-studded, but solidly cast with actors who truly know how to speak and act Shakespearean dialogue. Event the rapid-fire exchanges are delivered with a clarity that allows the audience to keep up with the sense of what’s said, if not with the details.

Here, the cast particularly shines in the older roles. Celia Johnson is a spectacular nurse, and her character truly benefits from the longer runtimes as her relationship with Juliet emerges as the most warmly emotional in the series. It’s truly a heartbreaking moment when she finds Juliet dead, and Johnson’s performance makes it even more impactful than the final double suicide. Michael Hordern is an equally accomplished Capulet who manages to balance his sentimental love for his daughter with his virulent hatred of the Montagues. The scene in which he erupts over Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris stands as one of the most powerful in the adaptation. On the other end of the spectrum, Anthony Andrews is a boisterous, thrilling Merutio. Arguably the most critical piece of the play, Andrews truly nails the sardonic, insightful, anti-romantic, revengeful, and playful sides of the character. Alan Rickman (of Harry Potter fame) serves as a suitably forbidding, ascetic counterpoint to Mercutio.

But how about the lovers themselves? In my opinion, they’re two of the most difficult roles to cast in all of Shakespeare because of their age and because of the extravagantly melodramatic nature of the roles that too easily cross into hokey histrionics. Truly, there is a little leeway because the characters themselves are so loaded down with their own self-deluded bullshit so that the overacting fits in with the characters themselves. But the thing to always remember is that the emotion and feelings are painfully real to them. In fact, if part of the genius of Shakespeare was his ability to present so many differing perspectives, then he truly accomplished something striking with how he presented the star-crossed lovers. Not only do we get to sympathize with their love and emotion, but we also get to step back and realize how terribly naïve and overbearingly unrealistic it is. So how do you pull off that romantic self-aggrandizing while still retaining the genuine emotion?

I won’t claim to know the answers, but both Patrick Ryecart and Rebecca Saire do an admirable job. If I had to choose between them, I’d say Ryecart is the better, if only because he’s slightly more believable. Saire is tasked with talking through too many tears and she doesn’t quite have the range to pull of the cool, rational or most explosively dramatic sides of Juliet. She does nail the virginal sweetness of the character, though, and her effortless charm likely does more for the character than greater dynamics and naturalism would. Ryecart isn’t the most romantic Romeo, but he is one of the most understated and natural. He seems more at ease with the language than does Saire, and his tendency to not sink into doe-eyed romanticism makes his breakdowns (like the “banished” scene) all the more devastating.

Overall, most every scene works well and many work better than I’ve ever seen them work in another adaptation. While I may miss the humanistic realism, visual sensuality, and physical sexuality of Zeffirelli, it’s hard to argue with the fact that this adaptation had me in tears a couple of time, but also had me reflecting on the absurd nature of it all several times as well. Ultimately, any Shakespeare adaptation that makes me feel and think must be something special, and the fact that it’s so faithful to the elegance of the text makes it all the better.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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