Theatre Review: Shakespeare in Love

Date Posted: 24/07/2014

A screenplay that was surely meant to tread the boards? Rebekah Tailor reviews the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love.

It’s easy to become ever so slightly jaded when you hear of yet another big budget show lifted straight from the big screen.

But when I heard that Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s Academy Award-winning screenplay of Shakespeare in Love was to be adapted for the stage, my initial thought was: ‘Brilliant. Now there’s a script that was meant to tread the boards.’

And who better to bring it to the West End than Lee Hall, the man responsible for Billy Elliot the Musical?

So why does Shakespeare in Love work so well on stage? For starters, much of the story features a play within a play - a dramatic device so often used to great effect by the Bard himself.

A sliding wooden set depicting the timbered interior of a Tudor playhouse moves back and forth as the action switches from backstage to frontstage, which works brilliantly - particularly in the final scenes.

Poking gentle fun at the world’s most celebrated playwright, we witness the evolution of Will Shakespeare’s forthcoming new comedy, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, as it transgresses into the Bard’s now infamous tragedy: “Call it Romeo and Juliet - just a suggestion.”

Tom Bateman is our Bard struggling with writer’s block, who find his muse in the over-zealous noblewomen Viola De Lesseps, played by the marvellous Lucy Briggs-Owen.

As the two embark on an impassioned and forbidden affair - he loves her eyes, she his poetry - their romance spills over onto the stage, in front of an audience that includes, who else, but Queen Elizabeth I (played by Anna Carteret).

There’s definite chemistry between our star-crossed lovers and the pair put in a superb performance, especially Briggs-Owen who plays Viola with all the fervour and melodrama of a true Shakespeare heroine.

But it’s the scenes between Will and fellow playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe (David Oakes) which I enjoyed the most. The balcony scene in act one is brilliant, as a clever repartee back and forth creates those immortal lines: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…”

For fans of the film there are no surprises, and I actually much preferred this stage version. It’s far funnier than I remember, and a whole lot pacier.

Beautiful Elizabethan dresses and men in tights are representative of the period, but it’s the music and instrumentals - namely a hurdy-gurdy, a loriman pipe and a lute-guitar - which truly evoke the Renaissance feel.

It’s a big company: 28 actors and musicians to be precise. And when they’re not centre stage they can more often than not be seen as observers, purveying the action from the wooden rafters.

Consequentially this busy and colourful stage means there’s plenty to take in without ever distracting from the main action, and ensures there’s never a dull moment.

At no point does Shakespeare in Love take itself too seriously - which is just as well, as I can’t imagine it would work. It won’t move you, but it will most definitely put a smile on your face. Oh, and there’s a bit with a dog - what more could you want?

Shakespeare in Love is currently taking group bookings at the Noël Coward theatre until February 2015. Discounted rates are available for parties of eight or more on the top three ticket prices, valid for Monday to Thursday performances.

Photo credit: Johann Persson. Copyright Disney.

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