fri 19/12/2014

Shakespeare in Love, Noël Coward Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Shakespeare in Love, Noël Coward Theatre

A joyous, ebullient adaptation whose real romance is with theatre itself

If music be the food of love: Viola (Briggs-Owen) and her suitors find it can be murder on the dancefloorJohan Persson

“Comedy, and a bit with a dog.” That’s what audiences really want according to the hapless would-be impresario Mr Henslowe, and that’s certainly what they get in Lee Hall’s new stage adaptation of John Madden’s 1998 film Shakespeare in Love – several bits with a dog, in fact.

There was a time when film-makers had it all their own way, pilfering freely from literature in a process which was entirely one-way. But trends have turned, and now you’re more likely to see the show-of-the-film than the film-of-the-book. Currently in the West End you can watch Dirty Dancing, The Commitments and The Bodyguard, and now of course Shakespeare in Love: The Play.

It’s a gift for a film about the magic of theatre to find itself relocated to an actual theatre

It takes a bold team to rework a film that won Oscars not only for Best Picture but also for Best Original Screenplay, but then this show really does have the best. Cheek By Jowl’s Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod direct and design respectively, while the adaptation itself is done by Lee Hall who has previous form with Billy Elliot The Musical and The Pitmen Painters. The result is energetic, even more densely allusive than Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s original, and maybe even funnier.

Ormerod transforms the Rococo interior of the Noël Coward Theatre into the Globe. Wooden galleries slide elegantly to and fro, creating an authentically Shakespearean but endlessly flexible performing space that revels in the onstage/backstage, Noises Off-style comedy of the scenario without drawing undue attention.

It’s a gift for a film about the magic of theatre to find itself relocated to an actual theatre, and Donnellan is quick to catch this energy. The set is fleshed out by a company of actors and musicians, who cluster round the action – Shakespeare’s own actors, but also his characters-to-come, waiting in the wings of his theatre for their cue. There’s a Mistress Quickly in the landlady, a Malvolio in the yellow-stockinged Mr Tilney. Their presence allows Donnellan to play the same deliberately anachronistic games of the original (there’s a great throwaway line about Putney Bridge, and a particularly cheeky dig at audition conventions) and add a few metatheatrical ones of his own making. Hand-mirrors and coats are helpfully passed to theatrical onlookers by characters playing an intimate scene; a makeshift “boat” of crates and chairs is given vivid soundtrack by a couple of pails of water and a man with a washcloth.

Live music is woven through the action by a troupe of multi-talented actor-musicians who juggle recorders, lutes, violins and voices with equal aplomb in Paddy Cunneen’s attractive score (though the countertenor could usefully pipe down a bit on occasion). Donnellan has learned much from the Globe (a rousing final jig for the ensemble is the most overt homage), and here his musicians bridge the gap between that theatre’s energetic, active soundtracks and his own propulsive contemporary take on ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Stepping into Joseph Fiennes’s designer stubble as the young William Shakespeare is Tom Bateman (pictured left with Lucy Briggs-Owen as Viola), who promises to do for the teenage girls of this century all that his predecessor did for the last. But where Fiennes played the role for laughs, Bateman’s playwright is a more serious affair. He lets several laughs go past in order to preserve pace and sincerity, a choice that would work better if it was completely in tune with Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Viola who, though endearingly gawky, is played at the pitch of a farce, never really letting us get too close.

The great joy here is the supporting cast: Alistair Petrie’s deliciously dry Wessex, Anna Carteret’s Queen Elizabeth (packing all the evening’s finest lines into her brief appearances), Doug Rao’s swaggering Ned Alleyn and David Oakes’s suave Marlowe. Colin Ryan’s Webster is grotesquely brilliant, twitching and scheming his way through a play that teeters on the edge of twee, but thanks to his theatrical memento mori and Stoppard’s tirelessly brilliant and many-layered original screenplay, never risks toppling over.

There’s comedy and a bit with a dog (Spot, played ably by Barney), but Shakespeare in Love also has a big heart, tunes to set your feet tapping and more actual Shakespeare than you might think. Shall I compare the adaptation to the original? No point. Both are excellent of their kind, and enough to set anyone well on their way to being in love with Shakespeare.

A makeshift 'boat' of crates and chairs is given vivid soundtrack by a couple of pails of water and a man with a washcloth

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