Josh O’Connor has described the “terrifying prospect” of starring in a new version of Romeo & Juliet filmed inside the National Theatre for television.
The Crown actor stars opposite Chernobyl actress Jessie Buckley for the production, which saw the stage spaces of the Lyttleton theatre temporarily transformed into a film studio for the first time to create a new telling of Shakespeare’s tragic romance.
The pair, who are old friends, were originally due to take on the roles for a stage version in the Olivier auditorium last summer, directed by Simon Godwin, but after theatres closed, the play, adapted by Emily Burns, was reconceived for the screen with a 90-minute running time.
Buckley told the PA news agency: “It’s a scary prospect but also that’s partly why we do it, to be completely scared in some shape or form.
“But everybody has got their own story of love and I wanted to discover what love was in this moment of my life, through this story, and to tell a story of love.
“I have no control over what stamp (I put on it), I can only come to it with my own perspective and create something together so it was definitely scary, I was terrified first day of rehearsal, like what did I get myself into?”
O’Connor added: “I remember being mostly scared about learning my lines.
“I don’t know why, it was totally fine, it is like half our job is learning lines, I don’t know why I was so weird about it.
“It’s a terrifying prospect because of the size of the emotions and so, because of that, it’s scary.
“I love the idea of hundreds of actors having played Romeo before and hundreds playing him after me, that is my favourite thing, but it’s more about the pressure of working with your very good friend Jessie and people like Simon, who I really appreciate and the whole team were like amazing and you don’t want to be the rubbish one.
“But also mostly it is about you’re dealing with love and death and these are huge things, you don’t get to tell those stories that often so that was the biggest pressure, but I always felt like I was in good hands with Jessie and Simon.”
The actors said they were also very aware they were working inside a theatre at a time of great pressure for the industry, when auditoriums around the country were dark.
Buckley said: “I think we have all felt very conscious of that, it’s a building of legends, of stories that have come through and moments that have happened on those stages.
“I guess at the backdrop of it all was we were on the Lyttleton stage but on the other side of the iron curtain there was an empty space where the whole reason for telling stories, the people that you’re going to tell it to, for this audience, for these faces that you might catch, they weren’t there.
“I guess it was such a unique experience because for the first time in my career the film community and the theatre community were meeting, and it was a really special thing.
“Everybody was on new territory and everybody had to reinvent what they have always understood, but together.
“But in the back of our mind was this empty building and everybody, whatever department, whether you’re cast or crew, we all felt a need to come in and bring light back into this building through something that we love doing with all of our heart and that is telling stories for an audience.
“What I think is so beautiful about the film is that you see the vulnerability in this space, you see the innards of this theatre being exposed and not trying to sheen it up or saying it’s anything different and those last two lines at the end of it saying ‘This was made in a global pandemic,’ we felt that every single day.”
National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet will premiere on Sky Arts, which is now free for everyone to watch on Freeview channel 11, on April 4 at 9pm.