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On falling back in love with Shakespeare

Dear Richard,

I get it. You’re an actor. Keeping fit is a priority. But for the love of god man, maybe think about using the gym instead of running outside, in nature, where bad things can happen LIKE YOU HURTING YOUR ANKLE AND NOT BEING ABLE TO FINISH YOUR RUN AS ROMEO! Ahem, anyway, just wanted to put that out there.
A Fan

The London theatre scene is a treat. Not only are performances plentiful, but more often than not, you have the option of seeing a film and/or television star on stage. Now, I like to think that for me, the play or musical is the main reason I book tickets for anything I see. If I’m being honest though (and what is the point of a blog if not for honest thoughts), Kenneth Branagh’s theatre company production of Romeo and Juliet caught my eye because of the stars in this poster.

I mean to say...whoa!

I mean, even if you weren’t a fan of Lily James and Richard Madden, you’d book tickets for this production immediately, right? And so I did. A week and a half after landing at Heathrow airport, I was headed to the Garrick Theatre for a bit of Shakespeare, and a LOT of Richard Madden. My seat was six rows from the front so I was confident I’d have a good view of the ex-Game of Thrones star.
Once the play began, it took approximately two minutes for a crushing disappointment to drown the whole night. The man on stage playing Romeo, was very blond and very much NOT RMadd.


This couldn’t be happening. I’d never encountered an understudy before and this was hardly the night I wanted my first experience to take place. I used my eyes bore large, large holes into this usurper’s face in the hopes that maybe I could transform him into RMadd myself. Of course, this didn’t happen and a flush of anger gripped my being. I raised my eyes to the ceiling of the theatre and mentally bargained that if RMadd somehow, miraculously, came onto the stage in the next scene, I’d give the play a standing ovation, regardless of what happened from hereon in. Again, I knew that wouldn’t happen. And it didn’t.

For the first ten to fifteen minutes of the play, I was depressed. This boy was obviously channeling the best Romeo ever, Leonardo DiCaprio, and I just wasn’t convinced he was pulling it off. Also, Branagh had set his production in 1950s Italy and most actors had a bit of dark, brooding-ness about them and this Romeo looked like he came from the corn fields of Idaho.
O Leo, Leo, wherefore art thou Leo? 

And then.

After the fifteen-minute mark, something began to happen. Not only was I coming to accept this actor’s portrayal of young Romeo (by the way, his name is Freddie Fox), I was beginning to listen to the words of the play. The beautiful, melodic flow of words that could only come from Shakespeare’s pen (quill?). I was invested in this heartbreaking play of love and even chuckled as I remembered that he first half of the story is basically a comedy.

The audience was right there with me. How could I tell? I believe that the success of a theatre production is directly linked to the proportion of coughing noise from the audience. And this crowd, for the most part, was silent save for the odd tittering, and a little sighing when a bit of dramatic foreshadowing was being played out. A non-coughing crowd is quite extraordinary and I feel this compliment should be laid at the feet of Lily James, who vibrated with passion and who was utterly charming as fair Juliet.

Shakespeare’s legacy, his works and language, have managed to mould much of our culture and it’s easy to dismiss him in 2016 (despite the year of celebration it was as it marked the 400th year of the bard’s death). I’ve heard many people moan that Shakespeare isn’t all that great, that they don’t ‘get’ him and that he’s not all that relevant anymore.

But then you sit inside a theatre, expecting to spend over two hours lusting after the latest British heartthrob, and find yourself, instead, falling in love with Shakespeare. He is absolutely relevant in 2016. The themes of his plays are universal and timeless because as humans, we don’t change all that much. Love, loss, death, family. These are all still the markers of our lives. The balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet is an absolute thing of beauty. It makes you fall in love with love. It makes you ache for these young lovers and silently weep for their future. It makes you want to run home and open up one of the many Shakespeare collections you have on your bookshelf that you’ve actually not looked at since high school and/or uni and immerse yourself in Shakespeare’s works, his language, his everything.

And so, while I didn’t see RMadd as I had hoped, I believe my theatre experience was richer, more rewarding than I’d ever hoped it would be.

PS A few weeks after I saw this production, I was able to see a screening of the same Romeo and Juliet at the cinema, and this time RMadd was front and centre as Romeo. Dear god the man is attractive. But that’s all he was. Freddie’s performance was the better one. He was a more passionate, more dramatic Romeo and the chemistry between him and Lily James really did burst from the stage.

Oh RMadd


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