Shakespeare In Love: The Play- Noel Coward Theatre
*HELLOOOO! I realise that it has been far far too long since I posted anything but there was a country move, a job and a film festival in the space of time since I last posted. It is really appalling to have left it so long and I promise I will be better in the future, I’m back for the summer now so should have plenty of time to see things and review them all for you. As usual, mini spoiler warning but I shall try my best. It is also based on quite an old film, a lot of the spoilers are out there.*
First things first, this is not a musical. I was under the impression until about a day before I saw it that it was. I’m not entirely sure where that came from but to be perfectly honest it isn’t a real problem. However, if you’ve come looking for songs called Gentleman Upstage, Ladies Downstage (which I have made up but if it was a real musical would certainly be a jazzy number with a kick line) then you are in the wrong place. It is not entirely music free with several live musicians performing Elizabethan style chamber music. Atmospheric and haunting, the music works to great effect with the candle lit stage and makes far more sense within the story. The other thing that this is production is not is an word for word reenactment of the 1999 Oscar winning film. Whilst certain lines are recycled, this is an altogether new take on the story of a pair of star crossed lovers from opposing worlds, with character development I shall endeavour to avoid too many film/play comparisons but it is inevitable that a few will crop up along the way.
The performances throughout are wonderful but none more so than Lucy Briggs-Owen as Lady Viola De Lesseps, the object of one William Shakespeare’s affections. I mean no insult to Briggs-Owen when I say that she wouldn’t have had much of a job to beat the utterly, utterly wet performance of Gwyneth Paltrow, the blandest woman in all of Elizabethan London. But she does beat her hands down and some, exuding warmth, spirit, charm and actual personality beyond simpering. She manages to bring comedy to Lady Viola where there was none before. Her Shakespeare is Tom Bateman who is a more youthful Shakespeare than Joseph Fiennes. For one thing, he hasn’t got a beard. The choice to go with a younger Will creates an altogether different dynamic than that of the film and throws together a pair who seem more evenly matched in age and worldly experience. This is very much a story of Shakespeare as ‘Will’ the young man from Stratford just starting to make his way in the world of London theatre and the decision to make him a shaven youth successfully adds to this idea. Bateman is strong in the lead role, demonstrating his comedy chops with dry sarcastic wit (my favourite joke of the whole thing is one involving auditions and Shakespeare requiring a modern piece from one of his actors. I’ve not described that very well but trust me it was funny) and is every bit believable as flustered young man desperately in love with someone who he knows he shouldn’t be. He is a watchable presence (and not just because he is totally gorgeous but the certainly helps) from beginning to end and I hope we get to see much more of him in the future. One thing that must be said for both Briggs- Owen and Bateman is that they are braver than I would ever be, both at one point lying sprawled out on a bed stark bollock naked, with little more than a very thin sheet stopping them both from giving the front row a complete eyeful.
As a couple, Briggs-Owen and Bateman’s best work comes not when they are playing Will and Viola but as Will and Viola as Romeo and Juliet. It left our audience speechless, so quiet was the theatre that you could hear a pin drop and I was left thinking that if anyone was soon thinking of bringing the star crossed lovers back to the stage, these two should play them straight. Not only is is a set piece of beautiful Shakespearean acting, Bateman and Briggs-Owen manage to encapsulate the true heartbreak of a couple who know they are soon to be parted but are acting out what is truly one of the saddest scenes in all theatre. It packs a real emotional gut punch, with both parties ravaged by the emotion of the scene and of their impending separation. and juxtaposes wonderfully with the old fashioned clowning (dogs pushing people down trap doors, boys dramatically losing their voices) that precedes it just minutes before. The scene is lit beautifully, with the body of Lady Viola’s Juliet surrounded by a halo of candlelight, all of which adds to the overwhelming sadness of the whole sorry situation.
One area in which the play deviates from the film in an interesting and I felt altogether successful way is the development of the relationship between Marlowe (played by David Oakes) and Shakespeare, upgrading Marlowe from a bit part to Shakespeare’s partner in crime and guiding light. They are properly bromantic with Shakespeare relying on Marlowe to come up with a verse for Lady Viola, resulting in one of the most famous romantic poems being panically fumbled over as the two best friends endeavour not to be caught. David Oakes is entirely charming in the role, all floppy hair and sarcastic comments and the contrast between his cool charm and the bravado and bluster of Tom Bateman’s Shakespeare makes a partnership in heaven. Oakes is a witty performer, the final tableau of the first half being a perfect example of this, as we seem him drawing the curtains closed on the four poster bed containing the embracing Will and Viola and departing with a knowing and cheeky eyebrow raise. The strong relationship between Will and Kit in the play makes Kit’s death a far more distressing incident as we as an audience become invested in their friendship and as Kit as a character. Bateman deals with the aftermath of Marlowe’s death beautifully, he is the very picture of a heartbroken man, with plenty of sobbing and flattening himself out on the floor. The haunting by his best friend right at the very end of the play is a nice nod to the Shakespearean tradition of hauntings and book ends the play sweetly, ending as it began with Marlowe’s advice on young Will’s writing.
All in all, Shakespeare In Love is pretty much a perfect summer trip to the theatre. Lead by a funny, sexy central duo, there is plenty here to enjoy. Fans of the original film will in no way be disappointed with what they find here and those new to the story will be in for a whale of a time. It is a production that grabs its audiences’ imaginations and takes them on a merry dance. Speaking of merry dances it ends, delightfully, with a jig, which in my opinion should be made LAW if you are going to put on any sort of Elizabethan performance. If it were up to me, Hamlet would have a jig at the end. Lead by a charming, strong cast who all excel at their roles (I haven’t even mentioned Alistair Petrie as the dastardly Lord Wessex, not looking as much like a member of Wham as Colin Firth did in the film, but relishing the pure, money grabbing nastiness that the role requires) the play has comedy, it has love and joyfully it has a bit with a dog.
Shakespeare In Love is booking at the Noel Coward Theatre until October 25th 2014