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

great performances romeo and juliet jessie buckley josh oconnor
Q&A
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)