How Simon Godwin Directed ‘Romeo & Juliet’ Hybrid Adaptation After COVID-19 Broadway Shutdown
Simon Godwin was preparing a stage adaptation of Romeo & Juliet at the National Theatre when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shuttering theaters and putting the show’s future into question. To…
We were filmingRomeo & Julietwithout ever leaving the theater. There was no Italian sunshine, there were no piazzas, there were no cafes. This was going to be a film rooted in the theater, and so rather than that being a problem, we decided to take the stoic philosophy of “the obstacle is the way”; use what you have, even if what you have is very challenging. We decided to chart the journey of some actors arriving in a closed theater, essentially in their own clothes, doing a kind of table read of
Romeo & Juliet, and that as the imagination of those actors took over, we would travel with them into an increasingly cinematic universe.How did you want to set your adaptation apart?The particular conditions of the pandemic did a lot of that work for us because for the first time pretty much since Shakespeare, when his theater was closed down due to the plague, we were in a situation where all the theaters were closed, and we were working in very charged conditions. Somehow this story of a terribly dangerous love affair, where touch was in itself lethal for the characters, suddenly also became the case for us.
Godwin’s goal forwas to evoke “the beauty and the importance of theater.”Rob Youngson/PBSWhy were Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley the right choices as Romeo and Juliet?I’ve known Josh for a long time, since he was at drama school at the Bristol Old Vic. When he came in to audition to play Romeo — this was before the first series of headtopics.com
The Crownhad been released — I was thrilled to see him again. He read the verse with such tenderness and vulnerability, but also edge, that I was convinced he would play and bring something very different to Romeo. He has known Jessie Buckley for a very long time, they’re friends in life. I was also convinced that the key to making
Romeo & Julietwork was the chemistry between Romeo and Juliet — they had that already for free, as well as Jessie being a very iconoclastic, intense, truthful actress. So between them, I had the strong intuition that they would bring something very tense to the parts.
What was it like to do this without an audience?We were fortunate enough to [end up with] four weeks of rehearsal and then 17 days of filming. The actors spoke very quietly during the first week of rehearsals, and I was not really sure why until our director of photography explained to me that they weren’t going to be on a stage with an audience, they were going to be front of a camera with microphones, so therefore the need to project was no longer so critical. That was a learning curve. Gradually I understood that on the stage with an audience, you have to move around a lot, so that lots of people in the theater can see your face. Whereas here, the camera likes stillness, intimacy, intensity, so a lot of the work was actually about distilling the blocking and the action into a way that really spoke [to] and made sense in front of a camera. It was learning that new way of seeing that was a big part of the process.
How did you decide on the contemporary clothing and set design?That sense of the rough aesthetic was absolutely born out of our reality, but also gave us a terrific springboard to leap into other worlds. The other thing that I discovered as we were working was that this experiment, this style, became itself a metaphor for falling in love. I think when you fall in love with somebody, you exist in two worlds — you exist in a world of fantasy, we’re all at the glorious masked ball, imagining the future that we will have with somebody, but you’re also trying to be your most authentic real self. That’s why in the party sequence we cut between the glamorous masked ball and that moment when Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time, as it were, as actors in the rehearsal room. That movement between the poetic and the authentic felt very meaningful for me. headtopics.com
What was the importance of doing this show as a tribute to and celebration of theater during such a hard time for the community?It was wanting to celebrate the power of the imagination, that theater is an art form that is based around communal storytelling, shared witnessing and make-believe. Rather than trying to create any kind of naturalistic film of
Romeo & Juliet, we wanted to create a film that in itself activated that imaginative muscle in everybody watching it, and in doing that made everyone remember the beauty and the importance of theater.Interview edited for length and clarity.***Star-Studded TV Movies
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