Adapter: Lee Hall (based on the screenplay by Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard)
Director: Phillip Breen
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
We all know the life and loves of William Shakespeare, don’t we? One tale you may not know however is the impassioned romance of Shakespeare and Viola De Lesseps. The two star-crossed lovers embark on a burning, yet undeniably troubled affair. Shakespeare seeking a muse to revive his drying artistic mind, Viola escaping her choking arranged marriage. As intense, honest and yearning as their relationship may seem – it was entirely fictional.
Adapted for the stage from the Oscar-winning film of the same name, Shakespeare in Love keeps all the tropes of the age alive. A woman disguised as a man, Jigs, an over the top foppish villain and, of course, royalty descending on high to mediate. If you’re any sort Shakespeare devotee be prepared for Bard Bingo, as the script is rife with nods, quotes and revelations of his life’s work.
Just as Shakespeare’s truly lost play; “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s daughter” shifts from comedy to tragedy, the entire production echoes this change. Act I is a full-blown comedic farce paying homage to various humorous forms such as slapstick, referential puns and facial expression. With Act II the tone changes, the mask of comedy drops – its smile shifting from merriment to a frown of sorrow. We know from the outset that this story cannot possibly have a happy ending. It never happened, and these are the saddest of all tales. The mark of dedicated storytelling is that despite this, we don’t care, we still want there to be a happy ending.
Love is effortless to depict on stage, it’s been the catalyst for almost all art forms. True love is a completely different matter. Pierro Niel-Mee manages to conjure stirring emotion, not only for Viola but more so for his friendly rival Marlowe. For at the heart of this romance about forbidden love, there is also a theme of kinship. A coming together of rivals, friends, strangers and royalty for the sake of the theatre.
Edmund Kingsley makes a magnetic Marlowe, even in ethereal form, his charm is effervescent. So too is the enjoyment plain to see on Imogen Davies face playing her role as the cross-dressing Viola. All our cast turn out performances to enjoy, some turning their hand to Paddy Cunneen’s marvellous score through instrumentals.
At first, what seems to be a middle-class child’s play area quickly reveals itself to be a striking set piece. Revolving on a turntable, the timber structure moves from cramp writing dens to the vast Rose theatre. It holds the production together, framing our performers perfectly. Max Jones design captures the mood exquisitely. MacHugh’s lighting decision work well on the dark set, such as candles blown out to close out the first act, one by one our lovers time diminishing with each extinguishes.
Primary criticism though lies with this set design in poor blocking with the revolving stage. Queen Elizabeth I’s appearance is lacklustre for those of us in the dress circle, even near the front. With a large portion of the rear of the stage blocked out. Whilst only occurring a few times, it is quite distracting for character building scenes.
Shakespeare in Love is comfortable theatre, richly enjoyable and pleasing. It doesn’t rock any boats, nor set off fireworks but what it does have is passion. Dedicated players living their roles, delivering on as many fronts as they can. Oh, and one more thing, Henslowe was right – it needed a dog.
Runs until 17 November 2018, then continues on tour | Image: Pete le May