10 October 2014

"That's What They Want: Comedy, Love and a Bit with the Dog"

Half my lifetime ago, I fell in love with Shakespeare in Love. I saw John Madden's film with my family in a crowded Manhattan cinema and we all loved it. So much so that when I returned to Oxford, I eagerly awaited the film's UK release date so I could watch it again with my friends. I probably haven't watched it for at least a decade, though, so when I heard that it was being brought to the London stage, it felt like it was high time to catch up with Will, Viola and the gang.

My family and I had great seats in the stalls, and after some brief excitement when we spotted Tom Hollander in the audience, we settled down to watch the play. It is a faithful adaptation of Tom Stoppard's original screenplay — as far as I remember, anyway — and it is witty, funny and enjoyable, with a great ensemble cast.

Will Shakespeare (Tom Bateman) is struggling to finish — or even to start — the plays he has promised two theatre-owners. In fact, he can't even finish the poem that would become Sonnet 18. Luckily, with the help of his friend and rival, Christopher Marlowe (the gorgeous David Oakes), he comes up with enough of a far-fetched plot involving a young chap called Romeo and a pirate's daughter named Ethel to keep one of his two masters — Henslowe (Paul Chahidi) — happy.

Casting the perfect Romeo is tricky, however, until a talented young fellow called Thomas Kent arrives to audition. Kent is great and gets the part but is, of course, the alter ego of a wealthy heiress and would-be actress named Viola De Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen). Yes: a woman. And a woman who is about to be married off to the loathsome Earl of Wessex (Alistair Petrie), no less. Will also meets the 'real' Viola after sneaking into a ball at her father's house, and they promptly fall in love. Yet the course of true love never did run smoothly, especially when Will must try to avoid being bumped off by one of Wessex's cronies and keep his vain, feckless bunch of actors in order, as well as winning over Viola.

The play, like the film, is very clever and filled with plenty of references to Shakespeare's works — present and future. "Out, damned Spot!" someone cries when Spot the naughty dog runs across the stage at an inopportune moment. And the actors who weren't fond of Two Gentlemen of Verona aren't too pleased to find that the play that has become Romeo & Juliet (or, if you are Ned Alleyn (Doug Rao), Mercutio) is based in the same city. "Verona again?" The first half of the play is very funny indeed, although things necessarily become a little more serious in the final act.

The terrific performances from the ensemble cast make Shakespeare in Love's transition to the stage a success. Briggs-Owen makes a great Viola; Rao steals plenty of scenes; and Ferdy Roberts' Ray Winstone-esque Fennyman is hugely funny, especially when his character is given the role of the apothecary in Romeo & Juliet. The sets were also cleverly designed — the balcony and circle tiers of the on-stage theatre doubling up as stately homes and even ships. If you liked the film and can make it down to the Noel Coward theatre to see the play, you won't be disappointed. But if not, re-watching the movie isn't too bad a substitute.

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