Shakespeare in Love

Original screenplay Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard, stage adaptation Lee Hall, director Declan Donellan
Disney & Sonia Friedman Productions
Noel Coward Theatre

Orlando James as Will with Company in Shakespeare in Love Credit: Johan Persson
Eve Ponsonby as Viola and Orlando James as Will in Shakespeare in Love Credit: Johan Persson
Suzanne Burden as Queen Elizabeth and Company in Shakespeare in Love Credit: Johan Persson
Eve Ponsonby as Viola in Shakespeare in Love Credit: Johan Persson
Orlando James as Will in Shakespeare in Love Credit: Johan Persson
The Company in Shakespeare in Love Credit: Johan Persson

You’ve seen the film, you’ve possibly seen the first stage cast, for Shakespeare in Love opened at the Noel Coward last summer, July 2014, but is it worth seeing again with a new cast? Yes, a thousand times yes. This one’s a safe bet—like that wager on whether one can successfully depict the true nature of love on stage.

This lively second cast has Orlando James as William Shakespeare and Eve Ponsonby as his forbidden love Viola de Lesseps, both recently tried and tested in Cheek by Jowl’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, directed then as here by Declan Donnellan. Associate director Oli Rose must take some credit, too.

A high pedigree creative crew—Paddy Cunneen’s music, Simon Baker’s sound design, Jane Gibson’s choreography, Nick Ormerod’s simple yet mobile and versatile ‘Globe Theatre’ set, Neil Austin’s painterly lighting; a pedigree ‘Monsterist’ cast of twenty-eight (‘one of the largest companies ever assembled for a play in the West End’); and a pedigree chum in Barney as Spot the Dog.

Everyone likes a bit of love, a happy ending and a dog. The Queen (a down-to-earth Suzanne Burden) likes the dog—though he only makes a brief if crucial appearance. And we do get a happy ending of sorts. Will goes on to write better plays than Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, and Viola valiantly—though she has little choice—sacrifices her love for his art.

As she sails away to the New World with her hateful new husband Wessex (Nicholas Asbury), Will sets to and writes of a shipwreck and a girl who has to dress as a boy, and a duke called Orsino… And so we come full circle. Life inspiring art… and art inspiring life...

Romeo and Juliet is created on the hoof and tested in real life—or is that vice-versa? But the binding force is a love of theatre and poetry. ‘What’s it about? It’s about fourteen lines’ is an old joke, but when applied to sonnet 18, the groan is stifled by beauty. Turning on a sixpence the script sparkles like a jewel in a dusky setting.

Agile screenplay (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard) is turned into an adaptation (Lee Hall) that bursts with youthful energy, lots of deliberate anachronisms (‘snarl-up on Putney Bridge’), modern allusions and winks (‘I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back’ says the cabbie boatman), and delightful play on who wrote Shakespeare and the unsolved murder of Marlowe, who returns from the grave to Will’s surprise: ‘They say that you are dead’. Hearsay, facts, gossip, mystery, and a gullible audience—a heady mix…

Witty, intelligent, nimble, and slick, Shakespeare in Love does what it says on the box and more. Shakespeare buffs will enjoy spotting the tapestry of lines from his other plays and identifying characters that fed into his work. Lord Chancellor Tilney (a ‘Don Quixote’ Richard Bremmer doubles as Sir Robert de Lesseps) is definitely a Malvolio.

It is about life in and of the theatre—all the nuts and bolts, trapdoors, pulleys, Noises Off backstage sweat, tears, inspiration and practical matters. And moneymen like Fennyman (Paul Brennen) who holds the theatre men’s ‘nuts in his hands’, but given a role, thinks he won’t ‘act’ he’ll ‘be’ the part. Once he gets the right hat.

Lots of laughs of recognition from the audience, drama students or actors no doubt who obviously know the type. Who snigger at the audition procedure—‘and now for your modern piece’, who know the razor’s edge of getting a show on.

Meta-theatrical and meta-historical, comical-tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical… The Shakespeare consultant is James Shapiro. Now he is one who believes Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, but the writers run with the uncertainty of proof, toying with those who think it was Marlowe.

Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe (Edward Franklin) make a great double act: Kit feeding and doctoring Will’s lines (sometime script doctor Stoppard knows something about that), even acting as Cyrano de Bergerac to Will’s Christian in his wooing of Roxane/Viola.

Slippery Kit, slippery history, a young Will at the start of his writing career, a Viola in disguise breaking theatrical convention, Ned Alleyn (Ryan Donaldson) with his big ego, Burbage the big ham (Peter Moreton), Henslowe (Neal Barry) who believes that all will turn out well—he doesn’t know how, ‘it’s a mystery’, ‘it’s a miracle’.

Eve Ponsonby gives a dashing performance in travesti and reminds me of Nancy Carroll, one of my favourite actresses. Orlando James makes a most endearing Will Shakespeare full of youthful vigour, and the whole ensemble are a marvel, a miracle of timing, hitting their marks, playing to the hilt.

Arranged on the three-tier stage as spectators and performers, they decorate the set, they dance, they sing, they play ‘Renaissance’ instruments. Grouped around Shakespeare at the desk, a solitary candle lighting his face, a tableau that frames the play, a studio portrait by Rembrandt, they are his people.

Too many to name, but Ncuti Gatwa gets a cheer when he overcomes his stutter, proving that no role is too small to make a mark, and it’s impossible to bypass Joy Richardson as a cockney Nurse or avoid loitering Stuart Wilde as the scruffy disloyal bloodthirsty street urchin John Webster. Given a bigger role than in the film, he intends to write something in the bloodletting vein of Titus Andronicus.

Directed at a pace the hours fly by—two hours forty minutes the mere blink of an eye. ‘Tis very well done. A living breathing Shakespeare on stage where he belongs—not trapped in celluloid - heart on sleeve and wearing learning lightly. 

Reviewer: Vera Liber