From Stage to Screen: Branagh’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the Evolution of Live Theatre

A couple of months back I had the pleasure of watching Kenneth Branagh’s highly anticipated production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ starring Lily James and Richard Madden (both fresh from winning our hearts in ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ respectively). Yet this was not your ordinary trip to the Garrick. Indeed, the tale of the two star-crossed lovers of Verona was in fact live streamed on the big screen at my local Odeon. As the lights dimmed and the trailers started rolling it got me thinking about the future of live theatre, in particular the perks of this widespread style of broadcasting versus the unique, goose bump-inducing magic of seeing a performance unfold in the flesh before your very eyes (I think you can probably anticipate my bias).

Of course, Branagh’s venture into the business of live streaming does an excellent job at tackling the increasing exclusivity of theatre and the impossible task of getting your hands on tickets that these days sell out in a nanosecond. We’ve all been there furiously clicking refresh on the turn of the hour whilst the webpage buffers, breaks down in a crisis, and sends you back to the rear of an internet queue where the tickets are unfortunately out of your grasp. Although the ticket price was inflated for my viewing from the standard cost of going to see a blockbuster release, (locally mine increased from around £8 to £17) it was by no means as expensive as a ticket for the Garrick itself where you would be lucky to get your hands on seat beyond row T for the lowest price bracket.

The Odeon screening housed a sizeable audience and with the aid of zoom technology and a couple of camera tricks there was certainly no chance of missing anything on stage or having to reach for the binoculars to distinguish the anguish on Lily James’ face as she clutches a dying Romeo in her arms. Branagh also capitalised on the cinema technology by producing the picture in black and white- an interesting and aesthetically pleasing technique which reinforced his 1920s mafia vision of the play. This included channelling the old Hollywood glamour of black and white picture films and the gang culture rife in both Sinatra and the Capulets’ times alike. Such a technique could only be realised on screen and did significantly add to the director’s innovative interpretation of the classic.

There was also something exciting about sitting back, watching the live countdown, and knowing that hundreds of other people were sat in similar shoddy, popcorn-strewn Odeons across the country witnessing the same live unfolding of events. For in true theatrical style, the show didn’t go down without a glitch. Guaranteeing that the performance was genuinely live as opposed to a prerecording, Branagh sheepishly graced the stage before Act I to inform the audience and us cinema-goers that Madden had that very morning fallen in rehearsal, straining an ankle and thus compromising some of his more energetic balcony leaps. They had to do some last minute stage adjustments and Branagh tentatively apologised for these unforeseen circumstances; but as is the nature of live performance. To my untrained eye the show looked flawless, but there was nonetheless a lingering guilty anticipation and delight at the prospect that something could go wrong.

All these benefits and similarities to the real thing aside, I cannot help but conclude that overall there was something wanting with the experience. The camera may provide intimate close-ups of the company but it could not mask the evident divide and distance posed by the screen. Personally, a great part of the magic of watching a play is experiencing those intimate sensorial moments that can only be felt when you are in the same room as the performers. The heat of the spotlights, the whispers of the audience trying to gauge whether it’s time for the interval, the creak of the stage as the actors tread the boards. Such nuances are not quite replicated in the Odeon where you are lucky to hear Shakespeare’s masterful verse over the sound of the woman next to you rummaging through her pick ‘n mix. The stream of adverts and a pre-performance trailer from Branagh were also a little too commercialised and superficial for my liking; I would rather be left to enjoy the play for what it is and be left to my own interpretation and appreciation of the company’s talent.

Inevitably in the day and age we live in I can only envisage that live streaming will become more and more popular. When we have the technology and there is the demand to see these high-profile actors at work, this is by no means a bad thing. It is a fantastic way to open up theatre to the masses and bring such wonderful works as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to an audience that would not usually contemplate making the journey to a theatre itself. Nonetheless, it is a pity that the magic of seeing such popular plays in the flesh remains an opportunity reserved for an exclusive few who manage to purchase a ticket. Should theatre companies reduce prices? Add more seats? Operate a ballot system? Put on more dates? I do not profess to hold the perfect solution that would allow more people access to live theatre, but alas I present my musings before you.