Last week, I was lucky enough to go and see the live broadcast of Kenneth Branagh's Romeo and Juliet, starring Cinderella and Robb Stark, aka Lily James and Richard Madden. The play was performed in London, and we watched a livestream of it in a cinema in Leeds, along with other cinemas all over the world. It was the first time I've ever done something like that, and it was fantastic.
This production was set in the 1950s, and to capture that feeling, the entire thing was streamed in black and white. It's also notable for having Derek Jacobi as a much older than usual Mercutio, which was a really fun and interesting choice. It was a slightly confusing experience at times, because I really wanted to applaud at the end, even though I was actually in a movie theatre hundreds of miles away from the actors. But it combined the energy of a play with the camerawork of a movie, and it was magical to watch.
I realized, as I watched, that I'd never really seen Romeo and Juliet performed. I haven't studied it since the equivalent of sophomore year, when I had the world's worst English teacher and didn't learn anything at all, except perhaps that I hated my English teacher.
It was so different experiencing it now. As a fifteen year old, I thought the play was stupidly melodramatic. I didn't realize that it was meant to be melodramatic, because the main characters are teenagers. And this adaptation really emphasized that.
My friend described it as the "YA Shakespeare play," and she is 100% right. Romeo is 15, Juliet is 13, and the entire play relies on this fact. I mean, they know each other for two days, and after Romeo is exiled, Juliet threatens to kill herself and hatches a huge and elaborate plot to stage her own death and escape with him, instead of, you know, just LEAVING, without all that fake-death, tragedy inducing stuff. It's not the story of the Most Iconic True Love Ever. It's the story of a teenager who's lovesick for one girl, gets dragged to a party to get over her, falls in instalove with another girl without even learning her name, marries her in secret the next day, and kills himself over her two days after that. All with a lots of threats of suicide and "omg my life is over" and sulking in dark rooms with the curtains drawn and thinking everyone in the world is against them along the way. All the emotion is heightened, because that's what being a teenager feels like. All of it feels like the end of the world.
I'd also forgotten that the tone of the story turns on a knife-edge. Almost the entire first half of the play is a comedy, built around teenagers being stereotypical teenagers. Romeo sulking in his room and mooning about how no-one will ever be as wonderful as fair Rosaline. Romeo falling in love with Juliet two seconds later. The awkwardness and excitement that ensues. At points, they're almost a parody of what adults think teenagers are like, and many jokes are built around this "oh, kids!" idea. Then Mercutio gets stabbed, and it spirals into tragedy in an instant. All the humor dies, and the dominos begin to fall. All the heightened emotion that was funny in the first half becomes more and more tragic and deadly in the second.
Honestly, I still prefer the first half of the play to the second. Everything remains very melodramatic, and there are points where I want to scream at them to stop emoting and think. It's a tragedy because it could all have easily been averted, but it could have so easily been averted that I just want someone to insert some logic. Come on, Friar Lawrence, you could have helped Juliet without giving her poison to fake her own death. That was just totally unreasonable.
But overall... oh my god, it was so good. The literature nerd in me was obsessed. If you get a chance to watch a rebroadcast, I definitely recommend it!