Due to an ankle injury sustained by Richard Madden, Freddie Fox will take over the role of Romeo from July 26 to the end of the run.
If leads Lily James and Richard Madden turn in solid, meat'n'two veg performances in director Kenneth Branagh's take on Shakespeare's ‘Romeo and Juliet’, then big name supporting actor Derek Jacobi offers something more akin to a 20 course tasting menu at the Fat Duck. It's a pretty weird contrast.
Branagh and Rob Ashford's production is, for the most part, as straight down the line as they come. It's bustling, it’s energetic, before the tragedy kicks in it’s exuberant and lighthearted (Meera Syal's nurse and Sam Valentine's Friar Lawrence are particularly chucklesome), and the verse speaking is beautifully crisp and clear.
It's not doing anything fancy, but it’s solid. James’s petulant, immature Juliet is good. 'Game of Thrones' star Madden is less so, delivering his passionate verse with the elan of a mildly vexed junior accountant. There’s not a lot of chemistry between them, but fans of the duo – who were also the romantic leads of Branagh’s ‘Cinderella’ film – will probably forgive them that. It’s obviously intended as Shakespeare for younger audiences or first timers, but I mean that less patronisingly than it might sound: Shakespeare’s romantic, action-packed tragedy about two teens lovers from feuding houses is almost always staged with an eye on newcomers.
But then there’s the strangest of wildcards, 77-year-old Sir Derek Jacobi, one of the greatest English stage actors of all time, taking on the role of Romeo’s prankish BFF Mercutio. It’s a fascinating piece of casting, and Jacobi definitely makes sense of Mercutio as a stylish, snarky old queen. But the obvious downside of shoving a living stage legend next to actors who are, er, not is that there’s nobody there to stop him running off with the show, which is a big problem when he’s only in the first half.
It’s not to even say that this is Jacobi is at his best, because it isn’t – for the most part he’s shamelessly grandstanding. But his prissy, detailed take – he even has a special little dance ffs! – is so far beyond what poor, hunky Madden is capable of that they might as well be different species. Spoiler alert: Mercutio dies in single combat with Romeo’s nemesis Tybalt just before the interval (poignantly, Jacobi suggests the elderly Mercutio only challenges Tybalt as one of his pranks, but being Italian and that is left unable to back down when the other man takes him at his word). With Jacobi’s gone, the second half is left with a yawning charisma void that pretty much undermines the tragedy.
Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? Dunno mate, I was too busy gawping at Mercutio.