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Jessie Buckley, Josh O'Connor's 'Romeo & Juliet' show goes on despite pandemic

Friar Lawrence (Lucian Msamati, center) marries Juliet (Jessie Buckley) and Romeo (Josh O'Connor, right) in secret. Photo courtesy of PBS
1 of 5 | Friar Lawrence (Lucian Msamati, center) marries Juliet (Jessie Buckley) and Romeo (Josh O'Connor, right) in secret. Photo courtesy of PBS

LOS ANGELES, April 23 (UPI) -- When the National Theatre had to cancel its production of Romeo & Juliet due to the COVID-19 pandemic, stars Jessie Buckley and Josh O'Connor were still eager to play the roles. Even though they could not gather live audiences in 2020, the National Theatre produced a filmed performance to air on PBS's Great Performances.

"It wasn't a theatre piece and it wasn't a film piece," Buckley said in a Television Critics Association Zoom.

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Buckley and O'Connor filmed their performance in the National's Lyttelton Theatre, with its 890 empty. Simon Godwin directed the show for the cameras.

"From the beginning of rehearsals, the cinematographer is in a complete collaboration with you, as well," Buckley said.

Romeo & Juliet tells the story of teenage lovers, the son and daughter of feuding families. Their romance is forbidden and ultimately tragic.

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O'Connor said he and Buckley rehearsed the show as if they were still going to perform it for live audiences. Most film or television productions would forego rehearsals and devote every day to filming.

"Even if it is a film, the reason we signed up wasn't just to stand on National Theatre stage and speak these words," O'Connor said. "It was being in rehearsal with these brilliant creators."

Coming from the Netflix series The Crown, in which he plays Prince Charles, O'Connor said rehearsals were valuable. The 30-year-old actor said he needed practice to get used to Shakespearean dialogue.

"Charles is all constricted in the mouth and everything is through the teeth," O'Connor said. "Suddenly your mouth is having to do acrobatics."

For Buckley, rehearsals extended into filming days. The 31-year-old actress said she and O'Connor continued to work on scenes in-between takes while Godwin was setup the next shot.

"It never felt like there was any dead time," Buckley said. "Even when the camera was setting up, we were still kind of hanging out and playing."

Because the production shifted from live to film, the actors had to calibrate their performances differently. Instead of projecting to the back row, Buckley said she had to translate that energy for an intimate close-up.

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"Each word had to be as big as the stage, but for just the camera," Buckley said. "There was a real pleasure in being able to be that delicate, but also be that big with each of these scenes."

Romeo & Juliet climaxes with the death of both characters. Juliet fakes her death, but Romeo doesn't know that, so he drinks poison. When Juliet wakes up and sees Romeo dead, she commits suicide.

Buckley said they filmed the death scene last, after eight weeks of production. She said her death scene was challenging, but no more so than the entirety of the play.

"They are all big scenes," Buckley said. "You are not doing a romcom. It is massive."

For O'Connor, the difference was losing his scene partner. Buckley's body still was in the scene with him, but O'Connor was effectively performing by himself.

"I love acting with Jessie, but then she's dead," O'Connor said. "Then, obviously, Jessie had to act to a floppy, dead Romeo."

Buckley said producing Romeo & Juliet during the pandemic added a sense of urgency. Buckley said the company was fighting for the ability to perform despite complicated circumstances..

"Nothing was taken for granted," Buckley said. "The love of what we do was not taken for granted because who knows what was going to happen tomorrow."

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Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet premieres Friday at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS.

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