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Global Pandemic Helped To Force Reimagining Of 'Romeo & Juliet'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Well, the world's a stage. And one of the most famous backstages in the world becomes the set for one of the world's defining romances. The actors enter the theater in winter London streetwear and sweat clothes. Two warring houses - the Capulets and Montagues - sit across from one another, seething, except for the youngster in each who long for one another.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROMEO AND JULIET")

JESSIE BUCKLEY: (As Juliet) Are thou not Romeo and a Montague?

JOSH O'CONNOR: (As Romeo) Neither, fair maid, if either thee dislike.

BUCKLEY: (As Juliet) How came so hither? Tell me and wherefore. This place is death, considering who thou art. If any of my kinsmen find thee here...

O'CONNOR: (As Romeo) With love's light wings did I o'er perch these walls, for stony limits cannot hold love out. And what love can do that dares love attempt. Therefore, thy kinsmen are no stop to me.

BUCKLEY: (As Juliet) If they do see thee, they will murder thee.

O'CONNOR: (As Romeo) I have night's cloak to hide me from their sight. And but thou love me, let them find me here.

SIMON: "Romeo And Juliet" by William Shakespeare, a new 90-minute production from Great Britain's acclaimed National Theatre. It's streaming now on pbs.org/gperf and the PBS video app. The production's directed by Simon Godwin. And as the two star-crossed lovers, Josh O'Connor's Romeo, and Juliet, Jessie Buckley, the great Irish actor/actress and singer, joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

BUCKLEY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: This was supposed to be onstage at the National last summer. How did it become this kind of presentation?

BUCKLEY: Oh, you know, just a small thing called a global pandemic happened (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

BUCKLEY: And it forced us to, I guess, reimagine a story in a different frame. And the frame wasn't at the stage but was the camera lens.

SIMON: Well, and the story range is all over the place. I mean, it's backstage. It's, you know, in theatre areas that we usually don't see. It's almost as if you took advantage of the challenge to reinvent and reimagine the story.

BUCKLEY: Yeah, I mean, it was kind of like, in some way, a blessing in disguise because, well, in a way, there was a creative opportunity to capture something that could only exist because of this.

SIMON: Yeah.

BUCKLEY: And the National Theatre was shot, was dark for the first time ever, really, in its existence. And I remember going into the theater with Rufus Norris, who's the artistic director there, and we sat on the Lyttelton stage. And it was really emotional because you just felt like this building - there was ghosts of memories, of performances, of audiences that weren't there.

SIMON: Yeah.

BUCKLEY: And in a way, putting this on was going to bring light back into a building that was dark for the first time, which also is what the love of Romeo and Juliet is, you know? They're bringing lightness back into a world that's become dark and become hateful and scared of each other. And it was a beautiful opportunity.

SIMON: And what was it like - well, I assume you had some kind of COVID guidelines, right? Like the rest of the world?

BUCKLEY: (Laughter) Yeah. So every two days we were being tested. And we had windows of - like, for example, the balcony scene - when we were rehearsing the balcony scene, we were only allowed to rehearse this immediately after we'd had a negative test. And we had a three-hour window where we were given the thumbs up, where you could go, all right, go in. Go in and touch each other up and have a lovely time if you're negative. But if you're not, yeah. So we - there was definitely protocols.

SIMON: And forgive me, the love scenes are unmasked.

BUCKLEY: Yeah. Love - yes, they are (laughter).

SIMON: And for that matter, the brawl scene's - I have seen about I estimated maybe 30 productions of "Romeo And Juliet" over the years, you know, between professional and community, high school - the most realistic brawl scenes I think I've ever seen.

BUCKLEY: Yeah, we had a fantastic fight coordinator, Kate (ph), who was really brilliant. But I mean, the virtue of the moment they were living in was feeding into the tension and the fear and the antagonism, which is alive on our streets, you know, this last year. And it definitely gave an extra fuel to the fire that lives in the Verona walls or the National Theatre walls.

SIMON: Juliet is thought to be about 13 years old. And let me just say you are not...

BUCKLEY: I'm not (laughter).

SIMON: Yes, right. All right. How do you portray a 13-year-old girl without either portraying her as an adult or a character from some teenage comedy?

BUCKLEY: To be honest, I didn't bother myself with that. I'm 31, proudly (laughter). And I guess I was more interested in the narrative of Juliet's potential to live passionately, to live at all was cut off at the age of 13. And she became a prisoner to a system in a way, which everybody in her family, her mother, whatever, have all kind of paid lip service to. When she says to Romeo, you do wrong your hand too much, she's been so hungry for a touch of any sort from the age of 13 that it was just like litmus paper, you know? And. that touch, that intimacy, that passion was only burning brighter because she hadn't lived since she was 13.

SIMON: Yeah, we're not sure when theaters will reopen. There are going to be some productions outdoors and with the doors open this summer, a limited audience. But of course, as you know, that's not cost-effective. All these video presentations are nice but not quite the same, are they?

BUCKLEY: No, you know, what the National Theatre has been able to do against the odds by putting on a production like this - if it's anything to go by, I can't wait to see what creativity's going to come out of this, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

BUCKLEY: And I certainly can't wait to be an audience member. I mean, I miss with every ounce of my body that relationship with an audience, you know? That's - everything for us is being able to connect with an audience and hear them go silent before curtain goes up and hear them laugh. I think it'll be really exciting. I have a lot of hope. And we've got to support them as well and ensure that we make them live again because they're magical.

SIMON: Jessie Buckley is Juliet to Josh O'Connor's Romeo. The National Theatre's production of "Romeo And Juliet" is now streaming on pbs.org/gperf and the PBS video app. Thank you so much for being with us.

BUCKLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROKOFIEV'S "ROMEO AND JULIET, OP. 64 - ACT 2 - PUBLIC MERRYMAKING - FURTHER PUBLIC FESTIVITIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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