London’s West End is filling up with movie-retreads and musicals, and here we have a movie-retread with music. But this isn’t just any movie, and it is almost surprising that it hasn’t been adapted for the stage before now. Released in the US in 1998, the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love gets a rating of 92 per cent on review site Rotten Tomatoes and is a cinematic tour de force, full of energy, wit and exuberance.
So the challenge for this production team (writer Lee Hall, director Declan Donellan and designer Nick Ormerod) isn’t that we know little about Shakespeare-the-man, that his plays are seen as inaccessible or that his creative process is unknown. These are the challenges which Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard have already surmounted with great panache. Just as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead spins a story from the side-lines of Hamlet, the screenplay is a comedy confected from the tragedy Romeo and Juliet.
The story is simple: laddish Will Shakespeare is suffering from writer’s block and a bout of impotence. He’s caught up in the frenetic play-world and promises plays to both impresario Philip Henslowe and bombastic Richard Burbage. His original play idea ‘Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter’ only gets under way after he has been aided by his friend and rival Marlowe, and the play goes into rehearsal when Shakespeare has barely written anything. His love affair with the wealthy Viola De Lesseps fuels his creative energy, and their clandestine relationship is conducted while the play comes to life. (Viola, disguised as ‘Thomas Kemp’, plays the part of Romeo.) But though it is pacey and entertaining, the script makes serious points about the creative process and how works of genius come into being. It dramatizes the chaos and confusion experienced by all artists, and highlights the importance of happenstance and collaboration.
I have to declare an interest here, as I am something of a Shakespeare in Love anorak having seen the film at least four times, and read the script for my PhD thesis which focused on fictional inventions of the Bard. This means that the film is clearly fixed in my head, and I was continually comparing the one with the other. But it’s likely that many audience members won’t have seen the film at all, or will only have a vague memory of it.
Still, for me there are two main questions – does the play work as well as the film? And does the stage adaptation make full use of the fact that this is live theatre? Given the track record of those involved, my expectations were pretty high. (Donellan and Ormerod are the creative force behind Cheek by Jowl, and their production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at this year’s Brighton Festival was brilliantly staged and visually stylish with a real edge of danger. And I have been a huge fan of Lee Hall since his astonishing radio play Spoonface Steinberg reduced me to tears more than 15 years ago.)
This production certainly has the charm and lightness of touch of the film. Tom Bateman is a puppyish, ebullient Will, who exudes innocence and naivety as well as passion. I liked Lucy Briggs-Owen’s take on Viola: she is slightly awkward and unsure, which fits with her geeky expertise about the stage and the various productions she has seen. Their attraction is breathless and compelling, and a convincing inspiration for the intense attraction that destroys Romeo and Juliet. (Bateman is as likable and roguish as Joseph Fiennes, and Briggs-Owen far more fresh and appealing than Gwyneth Paltrow.)
The staging is striking and highly effective. A wooden arch surmounted by two balconies sometimes looks out on to an auditorium, as if we are behind the scenes, and sometimes switches perspective so that we are the audience looking at an Elizabethan stage. This creates visual drama and a sense of immediacy. An actual dog, required by both Henslowe and the Queen in any acceptable dramatic piece, makes several appearances and gave a creditable performance as a bumbling bit player. The musical element adds to the sense of authenticity and is also used humorously – Burbage insists on incidental music to aid him in a bout of overacting.
There is an ‘and yet’ at the end of this. The second act has less energy than the first, and the climactic Romeo and Juliet death scene seemed overly protracted. And thought this is an enjoyable and clever entertainment, I would have liked something more. Something unexpected, surprising, audacious: something more Shakespearean. Much is made of the fact that Will is writing against the clock, trying to pluck his unimagined words out of the air. The other actors cluster around his candlelit desk, rapt with expectation, on the brink of ‘the mystery’ that is theatre. There wasn’t quite enough of that mystery in a production that is following such a familiar template.