Shakespeare in Love
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall
Directed by Declan Donnelan
Designed by Nick Ormerod
Noel Coward Theatre, London
Saturday 12th July 2014, matinee
A cast of twenty-eight, including:
Tom Bateman – Will Shakespeare
Lucy Briggs-Owen – Viola de Lesseps
Richard Howard- Sir Robert de Lesseps
Anna Carteret – Queen Elizabeth
Paul Chahidi- Henslowe
Janet Fullerlove – Molly / Mistress Quickly
David Ganley- Burbage
David Oakes – Marlowe
Colin Ryan -Webster
Ferdy Roberts – Fennyman
Doug Rao- Ned Alleyn
Ian Bartholomew – Tilney, The Lord Chamberlain
Alistair Petrie – Lord Wessex
Twenty-eight in the cast … a full RSC / Globe complement of actors. It’s the play of the movie about creating a play, and co-produced by Disney. The cast are familiar and almost a “supergroup” of contemporary actors specializing in Shakespeare and his contemporaries … Lucy Briggs-Owen remains the best Helena I’ve ever seen (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, RSC 2011), and was also wonderful in Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic earlier this year, and in Cardenio and The City Madam at the RSC. Tom Bateman was Antonio in the Old Vic Duchess of Malfi in 2012. Paul Chahidi was hilarious as Maria in the all-male Globe production of Twelfth Night. The cast are RSC, Globe and Old Vic experienced, peppered with the marvelous Ferdy Roberts from Filter as Fennyman, the money man. It has all that exuberant, exhilarating rush of a Globe, National Theatre or RSC major production too.
It’s really hard writing a review when every aspect has me searching the Thesaurus for superlatives. I’m desperately trying to think of any aspect of the play that fell below a full five star level, but I can’t find one.
So let’s start with the set. It has to be the best of the year in operation. It has three levels, and on the surface looks like The Globe, though plainer, with an inner stage area but with more extensive platforms at the sides. It moves back and forth as a whole, so sometimes we are backstage and at other times we’re the audience. We can be either side of the red curtain in the middle, watching the actors from our seats, or behind, watching their backs out on stage. It moves fluidly and silently into different positions. At one point, I thought “This would have been great at The Globe” but in fact The Globe could not be manipulated and shifted like this. Costumes are first-rate. No messing around with time and place. It’s London 1593.
Then the live music, written by Paddy Cunneen. It comes from all over the set, the musicians meshing with the cast. There are four beautiful voices used to great effect, as well as a wide range of instruments. Outstanding.
Everyone crowds around Will, encouraging him to write “Shall I compare …” (what?)
The story is the same as the film, and it’s good to remember how many killer lines there are … the boatman ferrying Will and Viola across the Thames does his, “I’ve had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of this boat.” The construction of the story was always excellent. We start with Two Gentleman of Verona, the only one where Shakespeare used a dog, and segue into the writing and construction of Romeo and Juliet, but then we see that the cross-dressing of Viola in the backstage romantic story leads us into the plot of Twelfth Night.
Take the dog. It’s a running joke (Henslowe wants a dog in the production of Romeo too), used very sparingly indeed. Backstage while they’re doing The Two Gentleman of Verona, we think “It’s a dog on a lead that won’t perform to order” then we don’t see it again for two hours and when we do, it does its thing perfectly. Twice.
Viola (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and Will (Tom Bateman)
The principles, Tom Bateman as Will and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Viola have chemistry. They are both perfect, as good as or better than Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in the film even. The film was laden with awards. A lot of the concept works even better in the theatre. Take the build up to the Romeo & Juliet death scene. It’s inevitably framed in “the theatre” setting in the film, but in this actual theatre, the lights go down, we focus on the action and soon we feel we are actually just seeing “Romeo & Juliet” with two incredible actors. That’s because we are always in a theatrical space. Viola dressed as a boy, Tom Kent, is hilariously gawky and awkward and embarrassed and perfect.
Viola on balcony, Will below
Another favourite scene is where Will is wooing Viola, who is on the balcony, and Kit Marlowe is prompting him with lines. Tom Bateman and David Oakes (Marlowe) are a fine double act. The interpretation of Marlowe has a touch of Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen. I’d have given him some ruffs around the wrist! There! I have finally found one thing that could be improved! An extra inch of lace round the wrists. So it is a critical review.
Ned Alleyn (Doug Rao) bursts into the story as the swashbuckling star of Marlowe’s major plays. There’s a lot of fun in backstage stories in actors portraying actors (they know!) and Ned Alleyn is the handsome vain hero persuaded that the play in progress will be called “Mercutio” and that he has the lead part. He generously tells Will to call it Romeo and Juliet.
Ned Alleyn centre, Will left
Ferdy Roberts was in Filter’s Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream, both stripped down, anarchic productions. He is the man with the money, probably a gangster with the money. His catch phrase is “Shut it!” to actors or musicians. He is desperate to play a part and so thrilled to be the apothecary, that when the “Juliet” boy dressed as girl loses his voice, threatening the whole production, he leaps on him and beats him up.
Wessex, Viola’s suitor, is played by Alistair Petrie, and is a villain’s villain. Colin Ryan is a goggle-eyed Webster as a young man. There are some fun contemporary references here … his favourite play is Titus Andronicus with all the blood (currently playing over the river at The Globe as this production started), and Tom Bateman’s recent major role was in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic. I remember Webster pulling the wings off flies in the film, but that wouldn’t work on stage. But we do get the auditions scene where he breaks from weird nerd into a full blooded melodramatic rant. The auditions are vey funny, with the tragic mime and the stutterer too. The stutterer does a “King’s Speech” bit as the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, starting with a stammer then winning through.
Anna Cartaret steps into Dame Judi Dench’s role as Queen Elizabeth seamlessly. Again and again, I’m nodding at how good the script was in the film (yes, Academy Awards for both best screenplay and best picture) and how good the adaptation is. The original title for the play “Romeo and Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” was a tad too Monty Python for me in the film, but we don’t get too much of it. And of course Tom Stoppard was lampooning Hollywood and its producers rather than Elizabethan drama in much of the script.
The dance: Wessex, Viola, Will
The choreography and blocking are another five stars. The formal dance with Viola switching between Wessex and Will dialogues while all are dancing is a stand-out, but all the way through a lot of people move together beautifully. The second half starts with enthralling music, then the musicians start to realize what is happening in the four poster bed with curtains below them. It’s good direction to make it clear that your actors are completely naked, without forcing them to reveal anything embarrassing.
Another fantastic moment is the climax, or rather anti-climax, of the sword fight between Wessex and Will Shakespeare. No plot spoiler.
Viola centre, persuaded to act by the company
The ensemble cast watch the action from above, form crowd scenes, switch roles. They convey the sense of twenty-eight people on a hugely successful joint enterprise. They know it’s great. They are enjoying every minute of it.
Seven plays in London in two weeks. This one was the best of the lot, and that’s against worthy and stiff competition from The Crucible at the Old Vic and Antony & Cleopatra at The Globe.
Excellent, especially notes on who Ned Alleyn, Burbage, etc were in reality.