At every turn we are offered insights like that until, suddenly, we aren’t. Nothing Godwin can do to make the play rough and unfamiliar — whether by having Tybalt (David Judge) urinate on a wall or by excising greatest hits like “parting is such sweet sorrow” — can help it get past the place where the lovers’ ingenuity fails along with Shakespeare’s. The plot thread by which Juliet’s fake death prompts Romeo’s real one is so absurdly flimsy that adaptations have tried for centuries to fix it; Arthur Laurents’s workaround for “West Side Story” is especially strong.
For me, though, no production of “Romeo and Juliet” survives the potions of Friar Laurence; they are a lot of magick to swallow in a play about such real and serious things. That Laurence is portrayed here (by Lucian Msamati) with great dignity, not as a nutty professor, helps, raising the profound if wishful idea that faith can correct for society’s failings. Even more movingly, Deborah Findlay, as Juliet’s fond nurse, is able to temper the role’s comic elements with an immutable loyalty to her mistress, and then temper that with something darker and arguably in fact disloyal. It’s a perfect trifold performance.
That’s the thing about Shakespeare, at least for me: There comes a moment in many of his plays when only the actors can preserve the emotion the plot keeps leaking. Happily, that happens here: As the tragedy narrows, O’Connor and Buckley flood with feeling.
Stars will do that. In the same way an enemy is just a receptacle for enmity that already exists, a starring role is whatever a star can pour ambient emotion into. O’Connor’s essence is a silent yearning — the kind that is not extinguished but fanned by satisfaction. (This is what made his otherwise insufferable Charles almost sympathetic in “The Crown” and the nearly silent young farmer in his breakthrough film, “God’s Own Country,” so expressive.) Buckley, whose face seems transparent at times, is more about wonder; her Juliet clearly wants Romeo but, more than that, is amazed by her good fortune in getting him.
Even in a more conventional production — this one was meant to be performed live onstage but was retooled for the pandemic — you need that kind of incandescence to make the play make sense. Remember that Shakespeare was a young star, too, albeit 30 or so himself, when he wrote “Romeo and Juliet.” Indeed, it often seems that his title characters, in haste and passion, wrote it for him.
Romeo & Juliet
Through May 21; pbs.org/gperf