Though live performances are largely still shuttered over a year into the coronavirus pandemic, fans of Shakespeare can rejoice, and those who have needed a jolt of theatrical goodness are in for a treat. PBS's Great Performances has picked up the rights to Romeo & Juliet, the planned 2020 flagship production for the Royal National Theatre in London. The show, which was about to go into rehearsals in March of 2020, was reconceived as a made-for-TV movie. The film just aired in the U.K. on SkyArts on April 4. Now it heads across the pond for us, with a premiere on Friday, April 23.
As the pandemic has stretched on, Broadway and the West End have had to get creative to survive. The hunger for theatrical performances is out there. Hamilton was a smash hit for Disney+, Between The World & Me a fascinating experiment for HBO, and the not-yet-opened Diana stage show is doing a filmed version for Netflix to promote itself for when ticket-buyers return. Over in the U.K., the situation was similar, with the National Theatre suddenly bereft of its headline production Romeo & Juliet.
In another world, the show might have followed the Diana model and done a filmed stage performance. The National Theatre, one of the U.K.'s most prominent publicly funded arts institutions, has become famous over the last decade for airing live performances in select movie theaters for those who cannot make it to London. (Those airing happen here in the U.S. too, but only in select theaters and arthouses.) Those performances are even streamable for those who subscribe to the National Theatre Live service, NTatHome.
But since staged live performances are old hat, the National Theatre Live's producer David Sabel decided they should go the whole hog here and create a full-on movie. Filming occurred between Lockdowns 2 and 3 late in 2020. It utilizes both the arena stage area and ranges all over the space, from closets to green rooms to dressing rooms repurposed for filming a modern-day set adaptation of the show. It also took advantage of the magic of filmmaking in a way live theater cannot with flashbacks and so forth. The result has been a highly acclaimed hybrid of film and theater.
This being the National Theatre's flagship show for the last season, the cast is stacked to the rafters. Josh O'Connor (The Crown) and Jessie Buckley (I'm Thinking Of Ending Things) play the titular lovers and are the top-billed. But the rest of the cast is also a who's who of British theater, including Olivier winner Adrian Lester (Staged), Lloyd Hutchinson (Manhunt), Colin Tierney (Endeavour), and newcomer Ella Dacres. The company also includes Fisayo Akinade (The Personal History of David Copperfield), Deborah Findlay (Silent Witness), Tamsin Greig (Belgravia), Lucian Msamati (Game of Thrones), Shubham Saraf (Bodyguard), David Judge (Hollyoakes), Alex Mugnaioni (The Borgias), and newcomer Ellis Howard.
Great Performances: National Theater's Romeo & Juliet is part of Season 48 of the long-running arts and theater program. The film will premiere on Friday, April 23, 2021, at 9 p.m. ET on most PBS stations. As always, check your local listings.