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Romeo and Juliet On Screen

Film and TV versions of Shakespeare's great tragic romance

Main image of Romeo and Juliet On Screen

Though it lacks the complexity and power of the major tragedies, Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare's most enduringly popular plays, its tale of star-crossed lovers divided by their warring families so familiar studded with some of his most memorable set-pieces: the Capulets' ball where the lovers first meet, the balcony scene, the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, Romeo's banishment, and the final tragic twist in the Capulets' tomb.

Unsurprisingly, it has been enormously popular as a source for film and television adaptations, both in Britain and internationally. Though a version was made in France as early as 1900 (d. Clément Maurice), the earliest British film appears to be a record of a 1908 Lyceum Theatre stage production starring Godfrey Tearle (in his film debut) and his future wife Mary Malone in the title roles, alongside Gordon Bailey's Mercutio and James Annard's Tybalt. The director is uncredited, but it was made for the Gaumont company.

The next British film was not made until 1954, almost certainly because there had been too much competition from American and European alternatives, notably George Cukor's glossy Hollywood version of 1936 with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer. Renato Castellani's film, a British-Italian co-production, was the first to be made in colour, and was shot entirely on location in various Italian cities: not just Verona but also Venice, Siena and Padua. Ravishing to look at, it is dramatically weak compared with the later Franco Zeffirelli film, largely thanks to some drastic cutting that has the unfortunate effect of reducing Mercutio and Tybalt to brief, almost indistinguishable cameos (not helped by the fact that Ubaldo Zollo and Enzo Fiermonte were neither professional actors nor native English speakers). The 25-year-old Laurence Harvey and 19-year-old Susan Shentall played the leads, Harvey's performance coming across as surprisingly light and sensitive given his subsequent stardom on the back of rather tougher roles (Shentall retired from acting after this film). The supporting cast included Flora Robson (Nurse) and John Gielgud's offscreen voice as the Chorus.

1966 saw two more film versions, one a recording of a stage production by Hugh Morrison performed by faculty and students of RADA, the other an adaptation of the Sergei Prokofiev ballet, directed by Paul Czinner, who thirty years earlier had made the first British sound Shakespeare film with As You Like It (1937). However, the decade's outstanding adaptation was made by Franco Zeffirelli in 1968. Like the Castellani film, it was a British-Italian co-production that was shot on location in Italy; unlike the earlier film, it was also a notably intelligent and insightful reading of the play. The lovers were played by Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, both teenagers themselves, supported by the more experienced John McEnery (Mercutio), Michael York (an uncharacteristically restrained Tybalt) and future writer-director Bruce Robinson (Benvolio). Visually ravishing, with a particularly memorable score from Nino Rota, it was a huge box-office hit that also managed to ensnare that elusive teenage audience.

That was the last British big-screen Romeo and Juliet to date, though the play was heavily featured in Shakespeare in Love (US/UK, d. John Madden, 1998), the Oscar-winning comedy whose plot largely revolves around young Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) writing what begins as a romantic comedy called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter but which gradually evolves, thanks to the intervention of aspiring actress Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) into the more familiar version. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's witty script is crammed with subtle allusions to both the play itself and theatrical life in general.

There have been a great many television adaptations of the play, starting with a selection of scenes broadcast by the BBC on 16 August 1937 (and given a live repeat two days later). Royston Morley's production starred Michael Redgrave as Romeo and Jean Forbes-Robertson as Juliet. The first postwar production was a live BBC broadcast on 5 October 1947. Michael Barry directed John Bailey (Romeo) and Rosalie Crutchley (Juliet) in a production that was not regarded as a success, though this is impossible to verify as it was never recorded. Dallas Bower's production of 22 May 1953 was given an altogether better reception, with the Times claiming that it intelligently exploited the limitations of the television medium. Tony Britton and Virginia McKenna played the title roles, but it also does not appear to have been recorded.

3 December 1967 saw the film featured as the BBC's Play of the Month, in a version produced by Cedric Messina (the future originator of the BBC Television Shakespeare project), directed by Alan Cooke and starring Hywel Bennett (Romeo) and Kika Markham (Juliet), with support from Ronald Pickup (Mercutio) and Thora Hird (Nurse). In 1976, Thames Television produced an eight-part version (the play's first colour television production) aimed at schools, which was also the last Shakespeare production by Joan Kemp-Welch, who had previously made the famous 1964 A Midsummer Night's Dream with Benny Hill. While that was a prestigious production given a peaktime slot, this was clearly made on the smallest of budgets, though despite this and the largely unknown cast - Christopher Neame (Romeo), Ann Hasson (Juliet), though Casualty and Blackadder fans will appreciate early appearances by Simon MacCorkindale (Paris) and Patsy Byrne (Nurse) - it's an engaging production notable for its clear presentation of the text.

Two years later, Romeo and Juliet inaugurated the massive BBC Television Shakespeare project on 3 December 1978 when John Gielgud appeared on screen to intone the Chorus' opening lines. Sadly, this production failed to live up to the hype, with producer Cedric Messina and director Alvin Rakoff determined to play things as safe as possible, resulting in a thoroughly bland and anodyne reading of the play that was only occasionally enlivened by Michael Hordern's Capulet, Celia Johnson's Nurse and especially Alan Rickman's Tybalt. Patrick Ryecart (Romeo) and the 14-year-old Rebecca Saire (Juliet) gave performances that matched the unadventurousness of the rest of the production. An accompanying 25-minute Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was presented by Germaine Greer and shown the same evening.

Similarly disappointing was Efim Gamburg's adaptation for Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, seemingly aimed primarily at younger audiences and with few of the imaginative touches that make many of the other animated Shakespeares so compelling. Reduced by novelist Leon Garfield to 25 minutes, with Felicity Kendal's modern-dialogue narration identifying characters, explaining motivation and filling in narrative gaps, this traditional cel animation opts for a straightforward, broadly realistic telling of the tale in cartoon form, set against an appropriately sun-kissed Italian backdrop. Voices include Linus Roache (Romeo), Clare Holman (Juliet), Jonathan Cullen (Benvolio), Greg Hicks (Mercutio) and Brenda Bruce (Nurse).

The most interesting television treatment of Romeo and Juliet was arguably to be found in John Mortimer's six-part ITV series Will Shakespeare. Part three, 'Of Comfort and Despair' (tx. 27/6/1978) revolves around a performance of the play in which Will (Tim Curry) plays Tybalt, during which he catches the eye of noblewoman Mary Fleminge (Janet Spencer-Turner) who has disguised herself as a man in order to visit the theatre. Both married (her husband is a judge), the two have an affair, as a result of which she is immortalised as the Dark Lady of the sonnets. All of which is highly speculative given the lack of evidence, but it's written and performed with admirable conviction.


1908, Gaumont
1954, UK/Italy, d. Renato Castellani
1966, d. Val Drum/Paul Lee (recorded stage production)
1966, d. Paul Czinner (Sergei Prokofiev ballet)
1968, UK/Italy, d. Franco Zeffirelli

BBC, tx. 16/8/1937, d. Royston Morley (scenes)
BBC, tx. 5/10/1947, d. Michael Barry
BBC, tx. 22/5/1953, d. Dallas Bower
Play of the Month, BBC, 3/12/1967, d. Alan Cooke
ITV, 1976, d. Joan Kemp-Welch
BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 3/12/1978, d. Alvin Rakoff
Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, BBC2, tx. 30/11/1992, d. Efim Gamburg

Other References
Will Shakespeare, 'Of Comfort and Despair', ITV, tx. 27/6/1978
Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC, tx. 3/12/1978
Shakespeare in Love, US/UK, 1998, d. John Madden

Michael Brooke

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