‘Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet’: Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley on Playing the Famed Lovers

great performances romeo and juliet jessie buckley josh oconnor
Courtesy of Sebastian Nevols

Wherefore art thou, Romeo? In this impassioned production of Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet starring The Crown’s Josh O’Connor and Fargo’s Jessie Buckley as William Shakespeare’s doomed lovers, he’s running around London’s National Theatre wearing contemporary clothes and, in cinematic close-ups, conveying the wonder and pain of an ill-fated romance.

“We’re inviting people and ourselves to take a little leap of imagination,” O’Connor explains of the sparse sets. “There’s a massive moon, which is just a big light. The balcony is some scaffolding. It’s actually heaven, because the only focus, really, is each other.” The costars tell us more.

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The Tony-winning farce makes its U.S. broadcast debut on 'Great Performances.'

We all know how this story ends, and yet it endures. Why?

Jessie Buckley: It’s love, man. It’s the great mystery of life.

Josh O’Connor: It’s the perfect story. They can’t be together, and the stakes are huge in the same way as Titanic and those epic movies we revisit. They’re all basically Romeo & Juliet.

When your Romeo and Juliet meet, they’re at an edgy masked ball. Why do they fall so hard so quickly?

Buckley: Their world has been numbed by violence, and love has become a scary thing: If you love someone, it’s very likely that you’re going to lose them. Everybody is starving for it.

O’Connor: I remember in rehearsal Jessie would say, “They need love.” That first sonnet is them realizing that they have a [shared] language of love.

(Credit: Courtesy of Rob Youngson)

When did you first understand the power of Shakespeare?

Buckley: It was quite unemotional when I learned it in school, and then I ended up doing a four-week Shakespeare course and it blew me apart. His stories of loss feel just as relevant today as they did in the 1600s.

O’Connor: I was rubbish at school, so nothing made sense. [Laughs] But my dad is an English teacher, and when he’d talk about Shakespeare, I loved his enthusiasm. Then I had an amazing drama teacher who took us to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream told in, like, 30 different Indian dialects. I didn’t understand a word, obviously, but I’ve never seen [that play] so magical in my whole life. He’s just an amazing storyteller.

Great Performances: Romeo & Juliet, Friday, April 23, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)