1999’s Academy Award winning Best Picture Shakespeare in Love was perhaps always destined for a stage adaptation. Not only was it based, albeit fictionally, on the life of history’s most famous writer for the stage, but it was co-written by one of the twentieth century’s most lauded playwrights, Tom Stoppard. A charmingly romantic comedy set around the time of the Bard writing Romeo and Juliet, it hypothesises that the titular heroine was originally played by a woman – in disguise as male actor – at a time when all roles, male and female, were played by men on stage. With plenty of allusion to characters and plot lines from Shakespeare’s works, it’s a story filled with trainspotting delights for classical theatre aficionados.
The MTC’s staging is as visually sumptuous and stunning as you could hope a classically set story to be, with Gabriela Tylesova building upon her award winning costume work from last year’s production of Twelfth Night, (an informative production in more ways than one!) Even more brocades, ruffs and gloriously puffy doublets are paraded across the stage to complement Tylesova’s sepia toned set design, which is equally awe inspiring. Harking back to the natural oak materials and column supported projected stage platform of the Globe theatre, the design features a magnificently swathed curtain splashed with heavenly blue, hanging over the performers and framing the action. It’s accompanied by an offset tower looking like a slide-less helter skelter, that provides scalable height for various moments, while Matt Scott’s beautiful lighting design accentuates the scenes to perfection. It’s a feast for the eyes that provides a solid foundation for the story to be told upon.
That story focuses on a young Will Shakespeare (Michael Wahr), who while casting his new play is entranced by the audition of ‘Thomas Kent’ – actually Viola de Lesseps (Claire van der Boom) under cover as a boy. When Shakespeare questions her too closely she flees the audition, but is followed home by Will who leaves a note to offer ‘Kent’ a role with Viola’s nurse who is in on the girl’s actorly ruse. Curiosity being too much, Will inveigles himself into the building with a group of minstrels as they play at a ball held by Viola’s parents to celebrate her intended betrothal to the slimy Lord Wessex (Daniel Frederiksen). This leads to Shakespeare’s ‘real life’ inspiring the plot for Romeo and Juliet when a moment of magic occurs on the dancefloor as Will and Viola meet. The requisite balcony scene follows and the lovers are suitably star-crossed, leaving Will with more problems than just how to end his play.
Having been first performed in London in 2014, Shakespeare in Love’s stage adaptation has received several interpretations globally, but director Simon Phillips seems to have hit on an ingenious trick in his version, (although it seems obvious now) by having most of the roles played by men, who double to fill out the ‘female’ ensemble. Deidre Rubenstein, as Queen Elizabeth I and Nurse, is the only woman on stage besides van der Boom. This makes for a lot of quick changes for many of the cast as they switch between major and minor characters, it makes the show all the richer and authentic in feeling though.
What is difficult to capture is the close up romantic moments that the film delivers. The emotional intensity and electricity between Will and Viola was at the heart of the movie, but it’s difficult to shorthand that feeling when you’re some distance from the action. Wahr and van der Boom are both charming and their relationship gradually builds a rapport with the audience that reaches some force of passion by the second act, but Phillips hasn’t been able to make lightning strike quite in the same place the film struck.
Most successful is the ribald comedy of the warring thespians Ned Alleyn (Chris Ryan) and Richard Burbage (Aaron Tsindos) who tussle over the rights to perform Shakespeare’s Romeo. Chewing the sets up as they go, the pair are outrageously larger than life as they attempt to out ‘thesp’ each other, Tsindos in particular is hilarious in his histrionics, giving Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart a run for his money.
Frederiksen gives a fantastic turn in limp villainy as Lord Wessex, while Rubenstein relishes all the film’s best lines and gives a knowing nod to the play’s scene stealing dog Spot (Daisy). Luke Arnold is a slick and swarthy Kit Marlowe, John Leary is a quick talking Henslowe the desperately scraping theatre producer, while Adam Murphy is gracefully restrained as Fennyman the moneylender with a desire to strut the boards. The cast is full of busy comedic performances that add zest to the Elizabethan theatrical scene.
It’s the small moments that make Shakespeare in Love a tricky story to tell on stage, but Simon Phillips has done an admirable job of conveying the beauty of the story and hit the right notes when they’re required. This isn’t a perfect stage production but that’s not for lack of trying and it’s certainly a very pleasurable attempt that makes for an easy entertainment on a wintry night out. Anyway, aren’t plays always more enjoyable when there’s a dog in them?