Out come the stars in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet. He musters a well-drilled, celebrity-ridden crew but they can’t quite get the rocket off the launchpad. The stylish setting evokes Italy in the early 1950s. The girls wear New Look frocks and the boys sport tight slacks and shirtsleeves. Christopher Oram’s muted set has bland marble walls and tasteless squared-off pillars like a modern dictator’s palace on the Euphrates. A rare failure.
Romeo is played by Game of Thrones inmate Richard Madden, who seems a handsome enough specimen, but Branagh might have asked him to act with his soul rather than his forearms. And he looks too mature. To kill a rival and throw away your life for a 13-year-old you’ve met three times is the lunatic act of a dippy kid, not the choice of a sleek adult with a designer shirt and hand-made shoes. Branagh’s textual choices create problems early on. He retains the Queen Mab speech (an anthology piece that deserves to be ditched) and he follows this delay with a cabaret song to start the Capulet’s masked ball. All this takes a thumb-twiddling 20 minutes when the story needs to get moving. The casting of Derek Jacobi as the young hothead Mercutio seems half-genius and half-prank. Jacobi has fun camping it up in a white tuxedo but when he croons a cabaret song in the marketplace he lets self-indulgence get the better of artistic discipline.
Lily James captures the intensity and loopiness of Juliet even though her erotic thrashings-about carry a hint of the web-cam starlet. Her mother, Lady Capulet, is played by a stately Merisa Berenson who seems just a teeny bit older than the 26 years specified in the text as her ladyship’s age. Michael Rouse’s Capulet comes across as a candidate for the sex offenders’ register. He’s a raging, spitting proto-Othello, and in his final scene he strips down to his vest and leaps on a prone Juliet, almost dry-humping the helpless girl on the floor. This is plain nasty rather than illuminating. Merisa Berenson should have half-nelsoned him and bitten the bastard’s ear off.
What the show lacks is a dominant personality to compel our attention and unify the atmosphere. Into the vacancy tiptoes Meera Syal (as the Nurse) to pilfer every scene without turning it into a solo production. Wise work. Her sidekick Peter (Kathryn Wilder) gets huge laughs from a minuscule role. One to watch.
A View from Islington North is a slate of new political playlets. Director Max Stafford-Clark arranges them in ascending order of quality. Worst first. Mark Ravenhill’s sketch has a loudmouthed Mum being given tragic news by two officers from her son’s regiment. Mum, a wish-fulfilment fantasy of council-flat barbarity, attempts to engage her uniformed visitors in repartee. ‘Cunt, cunt, cunt,’ she wittily exclaims before adding, ‘cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt’. The play closes with her bawling like a wounded hyena on a sofa. A trite and unfelt script. Playwrights shouldn’t need to be reminded of the old theatre adage: when the actor cries the audience doesn’t.
Caryl Churchill’s two-hander has a couple of yuppies exchanging banalities that are bizarrely sprinkled with references to Middle Eastern atrocities. Her point is that the 24-hour news cycle has dulled our responses to bloodshed overseas. OK. We’ve been told off. But what now? Churchill diagnoses but never cures.
Alistair Beaton’s play has two Blairite backbenchers plotting an anti-Corbyn coup. The author apparently supports Jezza’s nationwide shambles and praises him for offering a firm leadership that isn’t obsessed with power. That’s right. Beaton’s political manual says that the ideal candidate should avoid getting elected. He has a starry-eyed leftie proclaiming that Corbyn may be disorganised but he at least offers ‘chaos with hope’. Oddly, the script violates one of comedy’s golden rules. A sketch should never end with a character saying ‘bollocks’ or ‘shit’. It’s too weak. Beaton closes his entire play with a character saying ‘fuck’.
David Hare’s effort opens with Ayn Rand lecturing George Osborne at the Treasury. Rand, dressed as a widow on the pull, stomps up and down like a Thatcherite mother hen clucking away in a funny Slavic accent about the beauty of the free market. Osborne sits, brooding and listening. Then a brilliant twist. Rand declares the refugee crisis a miracle of liberal economics. Millions of entrepreneurs, she hopes, will flood in from Syria and give Europe’s talent pool the boost it desperately needs.
Stella Feehily’s closing effort deals with sexism and the issue of drunken, power-mad MPs making late-night lunges at buxom researchers in conference hotels. Her Pinteresque love of language and her oblique, complex characterisations are richly enjoyable.
So what is the point of this evening? It’s just a talent contest for scribbling lefties hoping to score a commission from the National Theatre.