There's nothing new to celebrity casting around Shakespeare in the West End. In the last few years, we've seen Michel Grandage directing David Walliams and Sheridan Smith in A Midsummer Night's Dream for Grandage's own company and Jude Law as Hamlet for the Donmar at Wyndham's, David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing, even Sienna Miller in As You Like It (the latter two also both at Wyndham's).
Kenneth Branagh, a vaunted Shakespearean actor himself who has done much to popularise the playwright with his feature film versions of plays like Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and Hamlet, launched his new West End company last year by playing Leontes in The Winter's Tale opposite Judi Dench as Paulina in a production of reflective beauty.
But now Branagh reunites Richard Madden and Lily James, the stars of his film version of Cinderella, for a far more coarse-grained, aggressively modern-dress production of Romeo and Juliet that's like a weird Hollywood version, kicking off with a portentous voice-over narration that opens the show and from which it goes steadily downhill. This is Romeo and Juliet as if it was episode of Dynasty: lots of poses being struck, emotions (over)wrought and sinister machinations.
It all feels very old-fashioned, even as it seeks to be aggressively hip and happening. Poor Derek Jacobi has to boogey as Mercutio, and affect a shrill camp delivery that's beneath his dignity. Marisa Berenson's Lady Capulet is a bit Joan Collins, with her transatlantic tones. Good turns from Samuel Valentine as Friar Laurence, Michael Rouse as Lord Capulet and Meera Syal as Juliet's Nurse are marooned in a production that, though it looks beautiful in Christopher Oram's Italian city square setting, is full of gimmicks, not least frequent breaks into Italian-speak.
It's all very strenuous. Only when the production slows down at the end, with (spoiler alert!) the double suicide of our title characters in the crypt, does it finally become affecting. But it is too little, too late.
"There’s a lot of collective weeping and wailing to establish the ominous mood, but also a swiftly counterpoised gaiety and coutured sophistication."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The action is set in 1950s Verona, and it’s mucho, mucho Italiano: there’s a lot of clichéd “ciao”-ing and stereotype-trading matriarchal shouting. But it also proves an effective backdrop: there’s a whiff of Mafia machismo, a sense that la dolce vita is undercut with an ever-present threat of violence."
Holly Williams for The Independent
"The whole thing is done with a speed and vigour that ensures we are never bored; and if I generally preferred the first half to the second, that is because Shakespeare’s tragedy itself depends too much on chance and the faulty Italian postal service."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Though it is stylish, accessible and illuminated by Lily James, it misses the passionate intensity of the tragedy."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard