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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Simon Godwin on Romeo & Juliet

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 165

The National Theatre’s new production of Romeo & Juliet was meant to premiere in the summer of 2020. But when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Simon Godwin, the production’s director, was tasked with turning it into a 90-minute film shot entirely in the National’s Littleton Theatre.

Now, as the film approaches its United States premiere, Godwin sees Romeo and Juliet as a play uniquely suited to our pandemic moment. We spoke with him about how the pandemic affected the production logistically and thematically, as well as about learning how to direct a film and working with actors like Josh O’Connor, Jessie Buckley, and Tamsin Grieg. Godwin is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Romeo & Juliet premiered in the United States in April 2020. PBS members can stream the film on-demand on PBS Great Performances’s website.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

FolgerShakespeareLibrary · Simon Godwin on Romeo and Juliet

Simon Godwin is the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published Tuesday, April 13. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Never Was a Story of More Woe,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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Romeo and Juliet
Read, download, or search Shakespeare’s play online with The Folger Shakespeare.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: It’s a timeless story, and it’s a story for all times.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet, by the National Theatre, directed by Simon Godwin. Josh O’Connor as Romeo, speaks over pulsing music.

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Romeo and Juliet is popular. When high schools or theaters want to introduce kids or new audiences to Shakespeare, often they do it with Romeo and Juliet.

So today, when theaters are shut down and all of us are still looking forward to hugging, kissing and holding hands safely again, it may not be surprising that there’s a welter of new Romeo and Juliet productions out there. There’s a new Spanish/English podcast version. There’s Romeo-hashtag-Juliet that made a splash at Sundance. And there’s the production we’ll be talking about on this program, the latest edition of the PBS series Great Performances, Romeo & Juliet, directed by the new Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, Simon Godwin.

Simon joined us from a studio in Northwest DC to talk about the play, and the challenges of performing and producing it during a global pandemic.

We call this podcast, “Never Was A Story of More Woe.” Simon Godwin is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Simon, I was thinking that Romeo and Juliet must be the Shakespeare play that most of us know best. I mean, it’s one I grew up with—you know, I saw it in theaters, but also in movie screens and all sorts of versions. How do you get yourself to see it through fresh eyes?

SIMON GODWIN: Well, I think Romeo and Juliet, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, is a text that we think we know, but when we come back to it, it’s full of surprises and secrets. I think that I start by reading the play extremely carefully; going back and absolutely having a think about how it’s been done before. And also trying to find this very complex relationship between the moment when the play is staged and the play itself. What’s the dialogue between Shakespeare’s text and today? Hopefully through those kind of connections, you can discover a way of breathing new life into, in this case, Romeo and Juliet.

BOGAEV: And in this case, how are you working with the cast then to kind of all get on the same page or inspire each other?

GODWIN: Well, I think this was a very particular event. Originally, the production had been scheduled for the Olivier Theatre. And I was expecting it to be a fairly…not traditional, but certainly a way of creating Shakespeare that I was familiar with, having directed Twelfth Night there before and Antony & Cleopatra there before. Then of course COVID arrived and the production was canceled, and I was faced with an extraordinary challenge which was, can we pivot from a play to a film of Romeo and Juliet?

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet, by the National Theatre, directed by Simon Godwin.]

          The fearful passage of their death-marked love
          And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
          Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove
          Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.

GODWIN: That breathed new energy into the experiment, because film was not something that I’d ever done before. Hadn’t even directed a short film. So the idea of creating this play in a totally new medium was very exciting, if nerve-racking.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Ellis Howard is Sampson.]

          Here comes one of the house of Montague.

          Quarrel, I will back thee.

GODWIN: We were given the parameters of making this film entirely on the stage of the Littleton Theater, which is one of the three auditorium at the National Theater. We knew we couldn’t leave there. We couldn’t have any natural light. We certainly couldn’t go to any traditional locations. How would we cope?

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet, by the National Theatre, directed by Simon Godwin. David Judge is Tybalt.]

TYBALT: Have at thee, coward!

[They fight]

GODWIN: As the stoics remarked, “the obstacle is the way.” That was keenly the case for us. COVID demanded a totally new way of working. What we discovered was that, in this context in which touch was extremely charged, and indeed, dangerous, that atmosphere actually informed our approach to Shakespeare’s play where touch is, of course, very dangerous too. To fall in love with someone in the wrong family, on the wrong side of the tracks, as it were, could cause you to die. The whole feeling of physical engagement acquired a new intensity in this experience, which actually helped to serve Shakespeare’s play.

BOGAEV: Stepping back from the COVID aspects of this, when you look at Romeo and Juliet, it does seem like a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth in that we can all hum these bars. And often, people are waiting for the balcony scene or the greatest hits of the famous lines. And it’s… perhaps, I don’t know, a little harder to make it your own.

GODWIN: Yes, I think as you say, one is always feeling a little bit intimidated. Having said that, Stanislavski, the great director and actor, teacher of acting, had this wonderful phrase, “The magic ‘if’.” If you were in the situation that these characters find themselves in, how would you behave? And I think if one asks that question honestly of oneself and one’s collaborators, your version, your response, your associations will always be unique.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. David Judge is Tybalt and Tamsin Greig is Lady Capulet.]

LADY CAPULET: Why, how now, kinsman? Wherefore storm you so?

TYBALT: Dear Aunt, this is a Montague, our foe,

LADY CAPULET: Young Romeo is it?

TYBALT: ’Tis he, that villain Romeo.

I would not for the wealth of all this town
Here in my house do him disparagement.
Therefore be patient. Take no note of him.
It is my will.

TYBALT: I’ll not endure him.

He shall be endured.
Am I the mistress here or you? Go to.
You’ll not endure him! God shall mend my soul,
You’ll make a mutiny among my guests,

TYBALT: Why, my aunt, ’tis a shame.

GODWIN: You can just let it simmer inside you. And as you speak those words, as you think about the lighting and the set and the story, it will emerge from you in a very invigorating and fresh way.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s wonderful. So you’re looking for that organic freedom and that organic process. Maybe, then, my next question doesn’t even apply, because when you’re, say, directing Hamlet or some of the other big, big crowd-pleasing Shakespeare plays, you do face big-picture decisions from the start. And you can decide, “Well, Hamlet, it’s the revenge play. I’m going to take that direction.” Or, “It’s a family play.” Or Henry V, “This is a war play.” Does that even come into your thinking when you approach a play like Romeo and Juliet?

GODWIN: Well, I think that—I mean, Brecht, I’m reminded of his line, “Don’t start with the good old things. Start with the bad new things.” With Romeo and Juliet, it was not so much about thinking about the past or how it had be done before or the sort of nostalgia in the play. It was about thinking, how can I make a very invigorating, fresh, spirited play that was in some level expressive of the pressures all of us feel right now?

BOGAEV: You said a bit earlier that part of that is that because of the pandemic, you were going to… rethinking how you were going to stage it and it’s going to be a film, and there was the distancing issue. So you, as you said, you’re primarily a theater director. So was this your absolute first time doing what’s, in essence, a film?

GODWIN: Absolutely. I had never even picked up a camera before. I’d never made a short film. I don’t, in fact—I should confess to you—even own a television set. So this was a very different approach. I had a very kind and patient cinematographer. We had four weeks of rehearsal before we shot the film over 17 days.

And so, every day of the rehearsals, he would come in early and would essentially put me through a fast-track film school. It was day one: “This is a closeup.” Day two: “This is a wide shot.” It really was as basic as that. And he would sellotape examples of these shots on the wall.

The whole process was filled with, sort of, moments of humiliating discovery. Another moment I remember is when I was struck in the first week of rehearsals by how quiet the actors were talking. And Tamsin Greig who plays Lady Capulet…

BOGAEV: Very quietly and coldly, yes.

GODWIN: Very quietly. Very cold. And I actually said something. “Oh, I’m a bit worried that I can’t really hear you at times.” And she just, “Well, so,” and, “This is a film. We don’t have to shout.”

BOGAEV: I hope everyone was kind with you. And patient.

GODWIN: Well, thank you. But certainly, it struck me how much of my job normally is essentially encouraging people to speak up. Be bigger, bolder. Whereas of course the filming journey is absolutely the opposite. It’s about distillation, intensity, intimacy. And so yeah, it was a pretty steep learning curve.

BOGAEV: Okay, let’s talk about some of that distillation. And I should say, this is very cinematic from the start, what you’re doing. The Capulet’s ball. it’s more like a techno-disco or rave, you know, music-video vibe.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Josh O’Connor is Romeo and Jessie Buckley is Juliet.]

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much.
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

BOGAEV: And Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss is intercut with a kind of falling-in-love montage. In fact, there’s a lot of intercutting. Right from the start of the production. Tell us about that.

GODWIN: Well, I think there’s two things that I was trying to do with the intercutting. We open the film with the actors arriving into a shuttered theater in their own clothes gathering together as if to say, as an act of solidarity, a ritual of creativity. They’ve gathered together for themselves with no audience to tell the story. As the film goes on, the worlds that they’re imagining become more and more realized.

As I was working in this way, I realized that there were two things that this show, if you like, about Shakespeare’s text and also about love itself. When you fall in love with somebody, you live in two worlds. You live in a kind of fantasy world: You live at the great Masked Ball, you live in a world of hope and desire and fantasy. But you are also seeking to be your most authentic self.

So when Romeo and Juliet meet in the film and we cut between them meeting at the party—the hedonistic, wild party of their dreams—we also cut between their meeting, as it were, in the rehearsal room, with no one else present, being totally free, playful, and themselves. Of course, as that moves on, the film continues to shift between these two worlds. And increasingly, as the realities of Romeo and Juliet as characters become more and more fractured, culminating in Juliet holding that bottle that she’s been advised to take which is going to lead her to appear to have died, she—as in the language—becomes haunted by, “What’s going to happen to me? Where am I? What ghosts might I encounter?”

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Jessie Buckley is Juliet.]

Or, if I live, is it not very like
The horrible conceit of death and night,
Together with the terror of the place—
As in a vault, an ancient receptacle
Where for this many hundred years the bones
Of all my buried ancestors are packed;
Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth,
Lies fest’ring in his shroud; where, as they say,
At some hours in the night spirits resort—
And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth,
That living mortals, hearing them, run mad.

GODWIN: And in that sequence, we deliberately collapse reality. So that this is an actress in a play. It’s an actress who’s in a film. It’s Juliet in a drama that she’s writing, being unsure what she should do, and in the line between the real and the imaginary.

The second thing: I think as I worked in this way, I realized how numerous the references are in Shakespeare’s own writing to the future. How often characters flash forward in their language. There’s a moment when Romeo’s about to go to the party where he’ll meet Juliet and he says to Mercutio, “I dreamt that if I go to this party, it will lead to my death.” And even later on, when he’s finally found in Mantua by a character that tells him that Juliet has died, he says, “I dreamt that my lady came and found me dead.”

These are all very strange flash-forwards. And I think what Shakespeare is doing is talking about fate, and how desire and fate relate to each other. When you fall in love with somebody, your life is no longer quite your own. You’re on a train which is going to take you to places that you probably can’t control.

Of course in the world of cinema, I could not only have that in the language, I could also create pictures. I could create actual flash-forwards so that as an audience, we too are privy to what was going to happen to these characters. And in a way, of course, of what makes tragedy so unbearable is that something is laid out that the characters cannot themselves prevent.

BOGAEV: Wow, so the setting in the theater and also the pandemic setting—which is the reason that you’re making it more of a film than a work of theater—that all leads to all the layerings that we want from Shakespeare, really. I’m thinking back to the last interview we did about Romeo and Juliet. It was about how many references there are to astronomy and what it tells us about science and math at that time and what Shakespeare knew. And it’s just such an example of how many different directions you can go with the text.

But how—to put a finer point on the difference between staging for the theater and creating this cinematic version: talk about the Queen Mab speech sequence, because that’s also very cinematic. You give the scene motion also with intercutting rather than the movement of the actors. So how would you have staged the Queen Mab speech in a theater?

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet, by the National Theatre, directed by Simon Godwin. Fisayo Akinade is Mercutio.]

          Then I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
          She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
          In shape no bigger than an agate stone
          On the forefinger of an alderman…

GODWIN: Well, I suppose had I been doing it in the theater, I would’ve been very preoccupied with having a lot of movement. Because certainly when you’re in the Olivier Theatre, which is this colossal stage—it’s a kind of thrust stage, so you have audience not only in front of you but to the side as well. You’re having to move around a lot to give as many people as possible access to the actor’s face, and to make this public.

BOGAEV: Very practical choices, yeah.

GODWIN: Yeah, yeah, completely. As public and as accessible a gesture as possible. Now of course in cinema, the more movement you have, the more shots you have to achieve. And the more shots you have to achieve, the longer it’s going to take. I was in a position of having 17 days to film the whole thing, so it became absolutely essential that movement was extremely focused. And that was a huge contrast for my whole process. But it was fascinating for the actors—particularly for Mercutio, who hadn’t done a lot of screen work before—to let the camera in, to trust the camera, and to allow the movement to be in the language and in the voice as much as in the body.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Fisayo Akinade is Mercutio.]

Then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambushes, Spanish blades,
Of health five fathom deep, and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes
And, being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab.

BOGAEV: So the movement and the voice as opposed to the body. This brings us to the paring down of the language. And how did that work in the scene? What was your experience? Were you taking more and more away as you went along, or did you take too much? How did your actors react?

GODWIN: Well, I think we were given quite a clear set of parameters. That this was going to be something that was going to be on television, and that the optimum running time would be around 90 minutes. Back to “the obstacle is the way,” I thought, “Okay, well, Shakespeare says—talks about the two hours’ traffic of our stage.” Two hours was what Shakespeare had in mind. We were at 90 minutes. I realized, yes, we had to make some bold cuts.

I personally have a very relaxed attitude about editing and about cutting. Not least because it, as we talked about already—a play as famous as Romeo and Juliet means that you’re going to have the chance to see this play many, many different versions over a lifetime. And ultimately, of course, Shakespeare will outlive all of us.

For me, it was exciting to go, “Right, this will be a version of Romeo and Juliet that’s probably going to reach thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people, who actually haven’t seen the play before.” So I had to create a really pithy, urgent, passionate account of the play that made sense, but did not linger in any of the, kind of, luxuriousness that perhaps doing it on stage gives you.

BOGAEV: Okay, now that’s difficult. I can only imagine because we, as I said, we all have our favorite lines. I’m sure you do. You luxuriate in the language. And one of the things—I mean, there’s so many things you can say about cutting lines—but one of the things I did notice is that you pass up the opportunities to play up any bawdiness in the script. There’s the nurse’s “fall back” speech: it’s not there. And the part of Queen Mab about lips. Hands and lips. And Juliet’s, “Any other part of a man.” Mercutio’s, “Prick of noon.” “I’ll cut off the heads of the maids, or the maidenheads.” All that stuff. Maybe this didn’t even come up as a choice, but what was behind choices like that?

GODWIN: Well, I think bawdiness in Shakespeare is notoriously hard to pull off.

BOGAEV: Oh, yeah.

GODWIN: Anyway… I think often you need quite vivid gestures to sometimes illuminate the comic language. I’m sure 400 years ago, the bawdiness would’ve been very present and very enjoyed by the audience. I’m sure many of the audience would’ve come to the plays to see the bawdy parts.

The code, the vocabulary, has in itself become much more obscure for us. I think bawdy works best when there’s a live audience that are in a way working together to explain a line by this ripple effect of laughter. I think when you’re watching, as we will inevitably be doing, watching this film in your own homes, it’s much more difficult to process that bawdy joyousness.

I felt like if I had to cut anyway, maybe focusing on the story… and also making some changes, which we can speak about. For example, giving the lines traditionally spoken by Lord Capulet to Lady Capulet. Or picking out a love affair between Mercutio and Benvolio. All of these things were ways of leaning into something new whilst letting other things go.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Tamsin Greig is Lady Capulet.]

          LADY CAPULET:
          I tell thee what: get thee to church o’ Thursday,
          Or never after look me in the face.
          Speak not; reply not; do not answer me.

BOGAEV: Yeah, I want to jump on that, because you do make Lady Capulet the heavy instead of her husband. She gets all those, “Hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,” lines when she’s talking to Juliet, trying to bend her to her will. She’s just hard as nails. I’m already a big Tamsin Greig fan, but mostly from her comic performance, in the TV show Episodes. So it was a real eyeopener to see how terrifying she can be and so dramatic an actress. You’ve already explained a little bit why you did give Lady Capulet the juicy parts, but tell us your concept of her as so bone-chillingly, quietly coldhearted.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Tamsin Greig is Lady Capulet.]

          LADY CAPULET:
          Thursday is near. Lay hand on heart; advise.
          An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend.
          An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,
          For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee.

GODWIN: My relationship with Tamsin began when she played not Malvolio, but Malvolia, in my production of Twelfth Night, also at the National Theater. She was absolutely extraordinary playing Malvolia as very much a woman who was in love with her female boss. She brought a drama and pathos and extraordinary comic vitality to that character.

For me, I think reading Romeo and Juliet, conscious that this, in a way, overfamiliar image of a man being verbally and often physically abusive to his daughter was something I felt we didn’t need to see again. The idea of shifting from the patriarchal family to a matriarchal family, and the matriarch exuding or demonstrating her power in a way that was very different from any other way we’d seen before. And perhaps gave us a glimpse into another theme in the play, which is the wish to be held.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Jessie Buckley is Juliet.]

          O sweet my mother, cast me not away.
          Delay this marriage by a month, a week,
          Or, if thou do not, make my bridal bed
          In that dim monument where Tybalt lies.

GODWIN: There are quite a lot of images in the film of, in this case, Juliet wanting to be held by her mother at the end of a very violent scene, and the mother just not being able to return that affection. Of course, here was interesting because Tamsin has spoken since about how the COVID context would inform the coldness that you described. She herself was very frightened of touching anybody. For her, that became actually something she would use in creating a character that was profoundly detached from her own body. That was a fascinating, I think, example of the context determining the content.

BOGAEV: Yes, and of kind of psychological violence. Also, in kind of a layering, you feel like Lady Capulet was never loved, so she doesn’t know or can’t… doesn’t even have the vocabulary to deal with her child in this situation.

Now let’s talk about Romeo and Juliet, because the age of the actors, of the lovers, is always a question. The most famous ones are all over the map. You have… Olivia Hussey was 16, and Claire Danes was 17, and Orlando Bloom was 36, although that was hard to believe. Leslie Howard was 43. How did you come to choose your actors of this particular age, but also these particular actors?

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Josh O’Connor is Romeo and Jessie Buckley is Juliet.]

          Sweet, good night.

          O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?

          What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?

          Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.

GODWIN: I had met Josh O’Connor, who plays Romeo, when he was at theater school when he was a very young man. I was working at the Bristol Old Vic at that moment as an associate director. So, I was based in Bristol and I met Josh and was totally amazed and charmed by him. Cut forward some years to me casting Romeo and Juliet for the Olivier Theatre, as it was going to be then. I had recently directed Antony & Cleopatra, with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in the same space. I’d become very aware of the degree of textual expertise that is required in that huge theater. I think what was interesting about Romeo and Juliet is they’re young characters, but they both say a tremendous amount. And the language that they have is extremely intricate and complicated. I felt like, in order to do the language justice, I needed actors with a certain degree of experience. So when Josh walked in for an audition for Romeo, before The Crown—the first series of The Crown had come out—I was so thrilled to reencounter Josh, who had obviously grown up but still carried a kind of tenderness in his heart. So I invited Josh to play Romeo.

Then the second thing I thought was absolutely essential, and the reason why many times in the theater I had seen the play not work, was chemistry. It was vital that Romeo and Juliet, in some level, were able to access a love.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Josh O’Connor is Romeo and Jessie Buckley is Juliet.]

          I have more care to stay than will to go.
          Come death and welcome. Juliet wills it so.
          How is ‘t, my soul? Lets talk. It is not day.

          It is, it is. Hie hence, begone, away!
          It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
          Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
          O, now begone.

GODWIN: I told Josh about Juliet, and he actually mentioned Jessie as somebody that he’d known for a really, really long time. We invited Jessie to come to the Olivier, and Josh and Jessie stood on the stage and said some of the words out loud. And I realized that without any directing on my part, or of any kind of provocation, there was just this deep, natural affinity between them as human beings.

At that moment I thought, “Well, I’m not sure I’m that interested in a 13-year-old girl being taken into a very feckless, rather naïve journey which is all colored with many, many kinds of problematic, political questions.” I thought, “Well, what would it be like if these were people who were grown up a little bit? Who have already been in love, in the case of Romeo.” We know that he’s in love with Rosaline in the beginning.

And one does something which is more based around that idea of when you are in love, you go a bit crazy. That’s the case if you’re 15, if you’re 25, if you’re 55. We can move away from very, as it were, naturalistic ages into a much deeper kind of obsessiveness and intensity, both which I felt Josh and Jessie could deliver.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Jessie Buckley is Juliet.]

          Come, civil night,
          Come, thou sober-suited matron all in black.
          Hood my unmanned blood, bating in my cheeks,
          With thy black mantle till strange love grow bold,
          Think true love acted simple modesty.

BOGAEV: Well, you mentioned Josh O’Connor was in The Crown and he played Prince Charles. Very cool, cerebral, bloodless Prince Charles. Here he is tender, as you say, but he also is a pretty cerebral Romeo. Unlike, I’m thinking, you know, Leonardo DiCaprio, who practically cries in almost every scene in his movie.

[CLIP from Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet. Josh O’Connor is Romeo and Lucian Msamati is Friar Lawrence.]

          Tell me, friar, tell me,
          In what vile part of this anatomy
          Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack
          The hateful mansion.


          Hold thy desperate hand!
          Hast thou slain Tybalt? Wilt thou slay thyself,
          And slay thy lady that in thy life lives,
          By doing damnèd hate upon thyself?

BOGAEV: Is that just Josh O’Connor? Is that his choice? That’s who he is? Or are you in there too? Is it a little bit of both of you collaborating on this?

GODWIN: Yes. I have to take responsibility that inevitably the director is sort of—

BOGAEV: Important?

GODWIN: —on the line in all the choices as well.

Important, but also, is revealed, let’s say like…

BOGAEV: Present?

GODWIN: —what’s extraordinary is when you watch a play—is present, exactly, in ways that sometimes you don’t necessarily expect, or indeed, seek. But when you watch something that you’ve made, you’re also surprised by, “Oh, right, that probably does reveal something about me, unconsciously.”
I think that Josh was interested in this way that he’s described by his father at the beginning. When his father says, “Black and portentous must this humor prove,” I think he’s really talking about Romeo being depressed. I think that there’s a great darkness in Romeo. And a great, yes, a sense of sort of self-torture. And we know, of course, he also kills people. This is not really the sort of romantic, sentimental hero that sometimes he’s portrayed as being. This is somebody who is overthoughtful at times, and overemotional at others. Somebody who’s on a spectrum. I think Josh was very interested in bringing all of those corners to light.

BOGAEV: Now we’ve talked about the pandemic all throughout this, but I do just have some practical questions about making art during COVID. What were the logistics? How long did everyone in your cast have to quarantine in order for you to pull this off safely?

GODWIN: Well, the biggest part of it was the testing regime. We were all tested between two and three times a week. We rehearsed socially-distanced, wearing masks. People lived in bubbles.

I, of course, coming from America as I did, was two weeks of seeing nobody in quarantine. Then they gave me a bicycle and a flat very near the theater so I could literally just cycle and minimize my contact on my journey into work each day.

All of that meant, of course, that we had to schedule things very, very carefully because it was deemed that we were least at risk in the few hours after the negative result of the testing. So you had to schedule the fights or the romantic scenes very particularly. You had the test, you waited 20 minutes for the result, all clear. Then before you left the building again, “Go.” That’s when you had to shoot and record and…

BOGAEV: That’s crazy.

GODWIN: And it meant…

BOGAEV: It even dictated the timing of your scenes, or your shoot schedule?

GODWIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. But it meant that when you opened the floodgates to this fighting or this feeling or this touching—and I think of a motif in the film of Romeo and Juliet’s hands touching at the party, it really feels like so much weight and intensity was invested in moments such as that. So, yeah, it was at a huge practical implication as well as an artistic one.

BOGAEV: We seem… now, I don’t know if this is true, but we seem to be in somewhat of a Romeo and Juliet renaissance right now. There’s the Romeo-hashtag-Juliet, the new movie, and there’s Romeo y Julieta that the Public just did—the Public Theater—just did as a podcast. And now there’s your production on PBS. Do you have any thoughts about why directors or theaters are turning to Romeo and Juliet, this play, right now?

GODWIN: Well, I think that it’s often the case, isn’t it, when there’s a little kind of… to quote a phrase, rash of plays, of the same play that appears. I think it’s fascinating trying to understand why. In this case, I think Romeo and Juliet of course is a story of love. I think at the time of such anguish, and separation, isolation, stories about intense feeling and intense connection acquire a new urgency. They’re a kind of wish. A wish fulfilment, even. We can’t necessarily touch each other, so we dream about touching each other. About connecting, about loving.

I think that there’s also something in the reverse though, in Romeo and Juliet, which is the all-pervasive feeling of death. We’ve spoken in our conversation today about this feeling of the flash-forward, the prophecy, the sense of doom riding, completely sewn into the play. Of course, in Shakespeare’s original, there’s a very important reference to the plague. The plague is what prevents Friar Lawrence getting the true message to Romeo.

So I think this is a pandemic play. I mean, we know Shakespeare’s theater was often closed down due to the plague. There’s an intensity and a feeling of mortality in the play, which I think we can also recognize, sadly, today.

BOGAEV: Sadly. But so lovely to talk with you today. It was such a pleasure. Thank you, Simon.

GODWIN: Well, thank you. It’s been great to talk and thank you for your wonderful questions.


WITMORE: Simon Godwin is the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. The production of Romeo & Juliet that he directed for the PBS series Great Performances premieres Friday, April 23 at 9 p.m. Eastern. It stars Josh O’Connor as Romeo and Jessie Buckley as Juliet. You can also watch it at or on the PBS Video app. Check local listings for the time near you. For our UK listeners, the film premiered in early April on Sky Arts. Simon was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast, “Never Was A Story of More Woe,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.