Shakespeare in Love
Noel Coward Theatre, London
July 2, 2014 – June 27, 2015
Like many of its West End counterparts, the Noel Coward Theatre is an intimate yet lavish location. In the case of “Shakespeare in Love”, initially this intimacy translates into a bulging stage as the 28 member cast gathers immediately in front of the audience. However, the heights and depths of the stage are soon revealed through versatile use of this theatre within a theatre.
All the historical figures of the era are present: Phillip Henslowe, Richard Burbage, Queen Elizabeth I and a young, swaggersome, hipster-esque actor/playwright named William Shakespeare (Tom Bateman), suffering from a bout of writer’s block. (He has potential, it is claimed, but “shall I compare thee to an autumn afternoon” is as poetic as he can get). Luckily, his rival Christopher Marlowe (David Oakes) is on hand to help, for there is no one greater than Marlowe in 1593 London.
Will has promised the script for a new, but unfinished play, “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” to two acting troupes, troubled by creditors and censorship woes. At auditions for the play, Will listens to endless laboured renditions of speeches from Marlow’s “Doctor Faustus” until Thomas Kent appears as a prospective Romeo. This young man, however, is really a young woman, Viola De Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen), who dreams only of being an actor, a vocation forbidden to her gender and stature. Ignoring his long dead marriage in Stratford, Will meets Viola at party, and unaware of her impending betrothal, woos her from under her balcony, despite her nurse’s pleas to return inside. And the two soon begin a torrid love affair which inspires him to get writing.
Sounds familiar? Indeed, it is. And although you don’t need to know your Shakespeare to enjoy the show, it does certainly help as the script is peppered with Bard references and plot devices: puns, malapropisms, mistaken identities, cross-dressing disguises, a play within a play and all range of sonnet and play quotes, beyond just from “Romeo and Juliet”. The set is of an Elizabethan playhouse and through clever transformation, the audience is given a backstage point-of-view of the unfolding ‘on-stage’ play of “Romeo and Juliet”, which provides additional interest.
“Shakespeare in Love” has it all – comedy, love and a bit with a dog, and is a guaranteed crowd pleaser of a romantic comedy of errors. And the comedy and chemistry between actors is plentiful, with the jibes of frenemies Marlowe and Shakespeare serving as a real highlight within Shakespeare’s quest to discover his dramatic voice. The music too, is a noteworthy feature, as it works with staging to reflect the intertwined nature of music, dance and storytelling in the Renaissance period. But ultimately, this is a story about words and it is fitting that both the opening and closing tableaux are of Will writing.
“Shakespeare in Love” is a joyous celebration of Shakespeare and the theatre, even better than its 1998 film source material. Opulent and extravagant beyond the blood and thunder of many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience on an aesthetic level, more suited to stage than screen.