Last night I went to the first preview of Shakespeare in Love, and it was glorious. If the name sounds familiar you may have seen the 1998 Oscar-winning film with screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. It’s now been adapted for the stage, and I admit that while I was excited to see it I was also worried: this had been my favourite movie throughout a lot of my youth, and as much as I love the theatre sometimes it can feel like the theatre doesn’t love me back. Not this time.
The play tells a fictional story based on William Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Will (Shakespeare) falls for a high-ranked lady, Viola (sound familiar?), while seeking inspiration for his new play which despite his friend Marlowe’s help, has been going nowhere. Will’s love fuels his work as his life and writing intertwine in a fantastically hilarious way with references to the real Shakespeare’s actual work (I’ll give you a hint: star-crossed lovers). Meanwhile, a certain well-born lady struggles to become more involved in theatre at a time where women were not allowed on stage. Whether you get all of the references or not, the ensuing madness has something for everyone, including the often brought up “bit with a dog”.
The cast are to be applauded for their energy, as it is absolutely infectious. Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen head up the bill as Will Shakespeare and Viola; Bateman a convincingly smooth yet stumbling poet you quickly fall for, while Briggs-Owen artfully pulls off both Viola de Lesseps and Thomas Kent (yes, I meant to say Thomas).
Other highlights from the cast include David Oakes who gives a dry, confident Marlowe that has the audience laughing with nearly every line. I have to say I actually found him to be more convincing as Shakespeare’s friend than Affleck’s Marlowe from the original, who came across far more as a rival; Oakes executes both his roles as friend and rival exquisitely. Also of note is Sandy Murray, who makes his debut as the dance captain and leaves a lasting impression with his energetic, joyful performance. With such a promising start, Murray could definitely be one to watch.
I could write a paragraph on each of the remaining actors from the devilishly handsome to the artfully disgusting (young Webster), but for the sake of brevity I’ll leave you with a final highlight: A bad set can seriously impair a good performance, while a good set often doesn’t make too much of an impact even if it’s well-designed. This production has an excellent set. It is abundantly clear that director Donnellan has been working with designer Ormerod for about thirty years, because the set aligns with the play’s story flawlessly. It’s backstage, a stage, the court of Elizabeth II, a pub, a bedroom, somehow all in one with minimal props needed to set the scene. It really stands out as exceptional: bravo.
Previews are now running for Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre and opening night is July 23. If you’re interested, and possibly even if you’re not, recommend you buy your ticket as soon as humanly possible; you won’t regret it.
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