Neither love nor hate make this “Romeo and Juliet” — the best so far of Kenneth Branagh’s ongoing season of West End plays — but haste. The actor-manager and his co-director Rob Ashford can’t quite get it down to two hours traffic, but they come pretty damn close, and the result is a headlong hurtle to the tomb for Richard Madden and Lily James’ teenage sweethearts. Rash decisions rule the day in a production that emphasizes the impulsiveness of youth, as feelings go off like fireworks. But, in signaling its ending from the get-go, inevitability slackens the tension. Pace, by itself, does not make for pulse.
This is a hot-headed, hot-blooded Verona, a whole city simmering just below boiling point. On Christopher Oram’s stone piazza set, brawls burst out over the tiniest disagreements. Bottles are smashed, terrace tables upturned and knives pulled out in a flash. Everything escalates quickly. Passions of all sorts run high. This is Italy after all — or rather a cliched version of it, ripped from a thousand Fellini films, pretty as a perfume commercial and fiery as a pizza oven. Even gestures of friendship come laced with violence: smiles tense into snarls; air kisses snap to tight grips.
Patronizing though this view of the Mediterranean is, it keys into “Romeo and Juliet” rather well. There’s a headlessness to the play, whereby hearts lead and tempers follow, and Branagh brings it out in a skittering dash.
Madden’s Romeo is the James Dean of Verona, with his sleeves rolled tight round his biceps and his quiff exceptionally coiffed. He’s a just-one-look kind of guy, suit jacket thrown over his shoulder, Ray-Bans just so on his nose. He’s pure heartthrob — but not a lot more. His speeches are flat and regimented. James, on the other hand, is beautifully expressive, stretching the verse like silly putty. Fidgety and fawnlike, she smuggles a stray champagne bottle out onto the balcony — raising it as a weapon when surprised — and inhales the idea of marriage so quickly that she ends up hiccupping.
Such is the impatience of youth, and Branagh and Ashford bring it into relief with an inspired casting choice. The 77-year-old Derek Jacobi plays Mercutio, bringing balance to the play as a counterweight to Meera Syal’s nurse. Where she stops to catch her breath and clutch her back, he witters on at length about Queen Mab and sits down to savor a Grappa or two. He’s laid-back and playful, and his friendship with Romeo is rather sweet. His death packs a punch not because he’s cut down in his prime, but because he’s so harmless; no threat to Ansu Kabia’s Tybalt whatsoever. He draws his sword as a playful gesture, plants a kiss on his opponent, only to be lashed down in response — a reflex reaction by an imprudent young man. If age slows us down, Branagh suggests that’s no bad thing. “They stumble that run fast,” after all — a warning, perhaps, for our own frantic times.
What goes missing in this production, however, is the underlying bitterness of a long-running feud. For all the head rush, there’s little hostility and, without that, the teenage lovers don’t seem so taboo. Perhaps that’s the point. Had they paused for parental permission, they might have found it.
However, as events unfold, there’s only one way this can end. Both lovers threaten suicide with increasing regularity, so lightheaded with lust or love, so high on emotion, that it overrides the survival instinct. Yet the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet isn’t that it’s inexorable, but that it’s avoidable, and Branagh never allows room for the possibility that, this time, just maybe, disaster will be averted. Instead, Verona’s a crypt from the start, and as the missed chances stack up — Juliet stirring the second Romeo swigs — it all starts to feel rather contrived.