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National Theatre Blog

Romeo and Juliet, and Coronavirus: making a feature film safely

Romeo and Juliet. Photo of the two lovers (Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor) Romeo looking up into Juliet's downturned face, an out-of-focus moon in the background

Ahead of the release of our feature film Romeo and Juliet, we talk to adaptor Emily Burns and Covid Compliance Supervisor Wyn Williams about how the film was made safely against the odds. 

Back in December 2020, as we opened our doors to the public for the socially-distanced pantomime Dick Whittington in the Olivier Theatre, another team were hard at work in the huge backstage spaces of the Lyttelton Theatre. This team were working on a new kind of project - Romeo & Juliet as an original film for television. 

Directed by NT Associate Simon Godwin, and with Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor as the star-crossed lovers, the production had been planned for the Olivier stage in Summer 2020, only to be interrupted by the pandemic. But out of this disappointment came opportunity: the desire to make the most of the incredible creativity of our staff, freelancers and associates while theatres were shuttered, and the idea of creating work that could reach millions at home.  

“It’s still a piece of theatre,” confirms Emily Burns, the adaptor. “But the entire production has been created for the screen, which makes it different from a NT Live recording of a production - from the approach to adaptation, structure and design, to the performance style. We’re hoping to engage an audience at home to go on the same imaginative journey they might do in the theatre, but each image has also been constructed for them from the beginning.” 

Wyn Williams, who normally works as a Company Stage Manager, stepped into the breach as Covid Compliance Supervisor. In normal times the porous tangle of theatres, rehearsal rooms, work areas and foyers at the NT is a boon to creatives. But with building open to audiences, and everything from sets to wigs being made in-house for both projects, the task of making Romeo and Juliet safe to work on came with a number of challenges. 

"We had to find a way to bring together the very different Covid-safe codes of practice for theatre and film into hybrid project,” says Wyn. “My job was to make sure the team could work safely and creatively, so both on stage and off we were innovating to create something new.”  

"We created a matrix of bubbles, which mapped onto different parts of the building. The cast were grouped into cohorts for close contact work, like ‘Capulets’ or ‘lovers’ or ‘fighters’, and staff were grouped into various zones. These different bubbles extended from the stages, into the scene dock, backstage offices, dressing rooms, and auditorium.” 

So how did this pan out in practice? “The first day of rehearsals was quite an alienating experience,” admits Emily. “The distance from each other, specific seats at the edge of the room, constantly masked, mandated hand washing breaks, waiting for the results of your morning Covid test. But by day two, it was if we’d never known any different. Everyone adapted to the restrictions with great humour.” 

Beyond the safety measures you might expect, Wyn illustrates some of the complex choreography required to keep everyone safe. “The Capulet party needed to look crowded and natural, and involved the addition of a dozen dancers. It looks care-free on camera, but in reality the movement directors (Shelley Maxwell and Jonathan Goddard) have built a tapestry of safe movements, with dancers returning to their designated bases as they go.” 

Reflecting on the challenges of Covid-safe working, Wyn believes the hardest part was deterring the cast and crew from what would normally be good habits. “In theatre people just help each other out - whether that's resetting a prop in their scene, helping move a piece of furniture, or even just passing a script or sharing a pencil. Theatre is a collaborative, intimate process.” 

Romeo & Juliet premieres at 9pm Sunday 4 April on Sky Arts in the UK (Freeview channel 11) and at 9pm Friday 23 April on PBS in the US.