Shakespeare in Love
Guest Feature by Natalie York
When I first heard that “Shakespeare in Love” was getting the West End treatment my initial response was, admittedly, to groan a little internally: another show based on a romantic movie. With “Ghost”, “The Bodyguard”, “The Commitments”, “Once” and all having packed out the London theatres it’s not hard to see why the producers of this new(ish) offering thought now would be a good time to pull Tom Stoppard’s clever but saccharine rom com about the most unconvincing drag act this side of Bob from Blackadder onto the boards.
However, although the mindset I came in with was a bit grouchy when I came out I had the biggest grin stuck to my face because this was probably the most sheer fun I’ve had at the theatre for a little while. Whilst the play sticks fairly closely to the script of the film co-writer Lee Hall does take some judicious liberties with Stoppard’s original, noticeably beefing up the role of Marlowe and adding in a fair few nods to 12th Night. What has changed most however is the atmosphere as whilst the movie was as much about drawing back the teen fans who fell in love with the Leonardo DiCaprio’s swoonsome Romeo to come ogle Joseph Fiennes’ brooding, pouty Shakespeare here the Hollywood sheen is stripped away and we’re allowed to revel in the almost clockwork neatness of Stoppard’s language and the inventiveness of the production.
Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen take on the lead roles as Shakespeare and his cross-dressing, theatre hungry groupie/ lover Lady Viola DeLessops. Bateman gives us a Shakespeare in serious danger of wasting his potential (although the scale of that potential is clearly signposted) as he mooches around the Southbank theatres skiving off work and quietly panicking over the success and talent of best-frenemy Marlowe (a gently superior David Oakes). One scene not seen in the film shows Shakespeare, forced to spontaneously wax lyrical and compose a new sonnet, aided by Marlowe surreptitiously feeding him lines from the shadows, a none-too-subtle reference to the authorship debate perhaps? At first the young Shakespeare fumbles and relies heavily on his friend’s assistance but when he gets into the swing of things he takes off on a flight of invention that leaves even the effortlessly clever Marlowe in the shade.
Briggs-Owen is full of boisterous energy as Viola, far more convincing in drag than the somewhat grating Gwyneth Paltrow, she runs headlong into the troop of players and almost serves as an avatar for the audience in her fan-girlish excitement at being allowed to join in Stoppard’s vision of the messy everyday life of Shakespeare’s world. Other shout outs must definitely go to Anna Carteret in a cracking and all too short turn as Queen Elizabeth and Alistair Petrie as Viola’s urbane thug of a fiancée.
Nick Ormerod’s set is loads of fun, a full, wooden playhouse that manages to seem intricate and bare at the same time with a maze of balconies, galleries and walkways overlooking a fairly unadorned wooden stage, this fairly simple starting point is used to fantastic effect and with a little modern jiggery pokery can become an endless range of Elizabethan spaces from a dodgy pub to a palace to a river. The final little trick with the stage is easily the best, I won’t spoil it but the constant references to 12th Night that hang over the play (the Lord Chamberlain is even dressed in what looks remarkably like Stephen Fry’s Malvolio get-up from The Globe’s production in 2012) pay off pretty well.
Overall this is a properly entertaining show, there’s even a good bit with a dog! We get a bit of singing and a bit of dancing (although thank god this isn’t a full on musical as I don’t think even the combined might of Stoppard and Shakespeare could combine to defeat the bloody onslaught of another overwritten pop ballad) there are a few tuneful Elizabethan melodies, nicely sung and simply accompanied and a couple of messy, stompy jigs that I defy you not to grin through. The acting is good, the writing is very good and the energy is better, don’t expect vintage Stoppard in the clever, clever sense but boy howdy is it miles better than the movie.
Shakespeare in Love is running until January 2015
Where: Noël Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4AU
Performances: Monday – Saturday at 7.30pm
Wednesday and Saturday matinee performances at 2.30pm
Ticket Prices: £15 – £57.50
Day Seats: £15, available in person at the Box Office from 10am on morning of performance
Box Office: 0844 482 5141