Familiar faces from The Crown and Fargo star in a new PBS production

Romeo & JulietPBSIn the summer of 2020, Fargo season-four standout Jessie Buckley and The Crown’s own Prince Charles, Josh O’Connor, were set to perform Romeo & Juliet at the Olivier Theatre in London, when COVID-19 suddenly rearranged everyone’s plans.

Looking to make the best out of a tough situation and provide entertainment during the pandemic, England’s National Theatre decided to transform the cancelled stage production of the iconic play into a stylized film. “We felt that this extraordinary story of love, rage and sacrifice would be a very fitting show to bring to the world,” says artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., Simon Godwin, adding: “We also thought it would lend itself to this radical new vision of trying to bring the stage and screen together.”

Romeo & JulietPBSThis contemporary rendering of Shakespeare’s tragedy cleverly uses on- and off-stage spaces at the Lyttelton Theatre in London to tell a well-known tale. Godwin, who makes his screen directorial debut with the 90-minute adaptation, credits his fellow artists for helping him find his feet quickly. “Of course, the fact that Jessie and Josh had so much experience on the screen was a huge gift to me as a first-time director on the screen,” he says. “And I had a very, very sympathetic cinematographer, that during rehearsal basically gave me what he called film school. It was such a collaborative adventure. There was quite a sense of trying to help each other.”

Much to his surprise, part of Godwin’s education in adding a more cinematic feel to the romance drama came courtesy of the Bard himself. “The fact is that Shakespeare writes in highly visual, highly dramatic language,” says Godwin. “So, Shakespeare was also the teacher, as usual, about how we can translate the story on the screen.”

Romeo & JulietPBSNo matter the medium, putting your own stamp on roles that have such history behind them is no easy task. Buckley found that, for her, steering clear of other actresses’ performances was the best way to distinguish Juliet. “Obviously, I have seen the Baz Luhrmann film, which is fantastic, but apart from that, I stayed away. I wanted to find out what love meant to me and to us in this story,” the Irish actress explains.

For O’Connor, finding his version of Romeo became about evoking intensity between the star-crossed lovers without leaning too much into the fact that they were merely teenagers. “Very often I feel like the youthfulness of Romeo and Juliet as characters is a lazy way of answering the question of why they are willing to die for each other,” he muses. “Understandably, if you are young, you are naïve and that first love, you would die for. But I think it is potentially more interesting to [explore] what is love and what is faith and what is the belief in life, beyond life on earth, that leads these two people to death?”

While not being able to perform the play on stage as planned, the company held firmly to their rehearsal process, allowing the dialogue and their on- and offstage relationships to deepen. “Even if it is a film, the reason we signed up wasn’t just to stand on the National Theatre stage and speak these words, but in large part it was being in rehearsal with these brilliant creators,” says O’Connor. “I am glad we fought for that.”

Romeo & JulietPBSBeing able to perform Shakespeare without actually having to project the lines to an audience also provided an interesting shift for the actors, who had been preparing for a different experience altogether. “Because it was so intimate, yet so massive, it really challenged you to get into the most minute detail of what each word was. There was a real pleasure in being able to be that delicate but also be that big with each of these scenes and these words,” says Buckley, whose approach to this epic tale of love and death, admittedly, would not have been different had she taken the stage as planned. “I probably would turn the dial up and try to have an energy go out in a bigger way than if I was doing it on camera, but you still want the human being to be as vibrating as it possibly can.”

What did make the hybrid production creatively unique, says Buckley, was their ability to be so closely involved in the creation of each moment. “I have never been in a situation where, from the beginning of rehearsals, the cinematographer is in a complete collaboration with you,” she says, hoping they are able to evoke the passion felt by cast and crew in the final product. “We wanted to live out something that we love doing, and it was kind of mirroring the story in some way, the feeling in the company of wanting to feel and wanting to be there. It was really special and something I’ll remember forever.”

Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet airs Friday, April 23rd at 7 p.m. on WTVS and 9 p.m. on KCTS