For almost a year, now, there have been few opportunities to see new productions of Shakespeare inside a theatre; fewer still where actors are able to touch, to interact. Metcalfe Gordon Productions’ new theatre-film hybrid production of Romeo and Juliet is an experiment in using technology to reproduce what has been lost, filming the actors (mostly) separately and then digitally inserted into the environment of a beautifully lit theatre. In many ways, its aesthetic recalls Kit Monkman’s 2017 film of Macbeth, in which the actors performed against green screen. It’s an impressive step forward in creating long-form virtual theatre with a sense of continuous space.
The production is entirely set within a theatre. A frustrating opening blurb tells us we are in the near future and that the remaining few urban dwellers have taken to living in theatres. It’s a worrying opening that betrays a lack of confidence; a theatre production doesn’t need to justify being set in a theatre, and trying to literalise the concept only creates more questions (where are the sirens coming from at the show’s conclusion? Where does anyone get their food? If they’re living in a literal theatre, why is the same bit of stage used for public get-togethers, private parties and burial chambers? etc). The allusion to a dystopian future is effectively irrelevant to the rest of the production and the production’s dramaturgy and spatial logic make rather more sense if one ignores it and simply treats the theatre setting as an aesthetic. It’s certainly nostalgic to see foyers, bars, dressing rooms and auditoria back in use.
As it stands, the technology is this production’s key concept and achievement; the treatment of Romeo and Juliet itself is fairly rote. Key innovations tend to be aspects of compression, as in Helen Anker’s performance which conflates both Lord and Lady Capulet into a single dominating figure. Anker’s performance is one of the highlights of the film, presiding confidently over a suite of dressing rooms and bars and setting out clear expectations for her daughter, Emily Redpath’s Juliet. Elsewhere in this theatre, the Friar (Vinta Morgan) is growing plants under artificial daylight, one of a few reminders of the claustrophobic containment of the single-building setting. Again, it’s a shame that the production’s brief gestures towards containment and entrapment aren’t expanded on or developed into a more coherent world or purpose.
The production has done quite stunning work at times in making it appear as though actors are in the same room (in the case of Juliet and Sam Tutty’s Romeo, there are in fact scenes filmed on a single day where the two are able to touch, which neatly creates a unique intimacy between these two characters at key moments). Nick Evans’s camerawork shifts between close-ups, two shots and more theatrical wide shots that help construct the three dimensional space, and Ryan Metcalfe’s editing works to make this largely consistent. At its best, the production creates believable impressions of Romeo and Benvolio (Daniel Bowerbank) relaxing next to one another in theatre seats; Capulet and Paris (Jonny Labey) conversing on a sofa; Mercutio (Brandon Bassir) and Romeo joking outside the building. The careful virtual work here means that, especially in these short scenes, the actors do appear to be talking to one another, and the editing at its best allows for some nice rapid-fire back and forth.
Too often, however, the spatial logic fails. This is particularly apparent in larger scenes such as the opening ‘brawl’ and the fight resulting in the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, where the eye-lines fail to match and different camera angles create wildly different senses of where actors are in relation to one another. In addition – and understandably – the filming means that the production is almost entirely inert. A production of Romeo and Juliet without a single fight has a massive uphill struggle to create any sense of peril. The Montagues and Capulets square off against one another but don’t actually fight with each other; and the Tybalt-Mercutio ‘fight’ consists of the two standing in front of one another before, suddenly, Tybalt swings an arm forward to stab Mercutio once in the gut; an act later repeated by Romeo on Tybalt. It’s comically anticlimactic, and almost diffident.
The fights exemplify the problems of the approach of filming in isolation. The actors all do a superb job within the limitations, but there is no dynamic space between the actors, no sense of energy. Visually, the actors look like they’re in the same space, but they almost never sound like they’re in the same space, their lines sounding slightly deadened. While Mercutio and Romeo’s banter manages to achieve a bit of pace, there are too many pauses between lines, no bouncing off one another, not enough reaction. And especially in the second half of the production, this leads to a film which is interminably slow, a full 140 minutes even with swingeing cuts. This is partly down to the technology, the small pauses between actors who aren’t responding directly to one another adding up; but it’s also down to the performance choices, especially Juliet delivering her soliloquies as ponderous musings. And the slowness and quietness in turn lessens the stakes. During the battle over whether or not she should marry Paris, Juliet reaches an emotional pitch that feels genuinely terrified and angry, and Lucy Tregear’s Nurse sells her grief over Juliet’s death, but these moments where characters seem to be living their feelings feel too rare.
The central romance is sweet, with Tutty’s Romeo in particular bringing a charm to his performance. The fact that Juliet and Romeo are able to share some scenes actually touching one another is also welcome, in a production whose set-up creates a stand-offishness between everyone else. The production also at times makes interesting use of the idea of distance. The image of a ghostly, transparent Romeo watching over Juliet after she took the potion doesn’t make internal sense to the play (especially when the trope is used elsewhere for characters who are dead, as in Mercutio and Tybalt turning up to watch over Juliet’s bier), and feels overly sentimental, but it’s a nice way to allude to the separation between the two at the point of her apparent death. Moments such as this gesture at the potential for owning and exploring the conditions of isolation that the film has been made in, which has been such a strength of the Zoom-based productions. In some ways, this production’s achievement might have been all the stronger for more creative use of its own conditions of separation.
Hopefully this model will keep being developed, especially in relation to not just the look but the feeling of actors sharing space together. And the star of this production is, in many ways, the space. A beautiful theatre building, lit stunningly by Elliot Smith, with the camera lingering lovingly on the seats and the façade. A Luhrmann-inspired crypt sees Juliet laid on a dazzling illuminated plinth, and red confetti falls from the ceiling at the start of the Capulets’ party. Derek Jacobi sits in the circle, an unexplained voyeur speaking the Prologue and almost inviting us to rejoin him. The environment onto which the actors are superimposed creates a central point of unity for the production that pays tribute to boarded-up theatres as places of refuge and symbols of hope. The challenge will be whether this technical hybrid can develop in ways that recapture the dynamic relationships between actors within those spaces.