(Image: Johan Persson on westendtheatre.com)
NB. I originally wrote this for my university newspaper but thought it was worth sharing on here too.
“Comedy, love – and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want,” theatre mogul Henslowe tells Shakespeare who is at a loss for ideas. And that is exactly what Lee Hall’s imaginative revival of Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre provides us with. I am a little sceptical towards the current trend of turning any film into a stage show, but this adaptation unquestionably does the 1998 film justice.
The romantic comedy tells the story of a young Shakespeare struggling with writer’s block, who finds the inspiration to write Romeo and Juliet when he falls in love with the wealthy Viola De Lesseps (played by the consistently ardent Lucy Briggs-Owen) whom he unwittingly casts as the male title role his new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. This inevitably goes to pot when he realises that the Thomas Kent he has cast as Romeo in his play is, in fact, a woman, and it is illegal to have women performing on stage. Needless to say, all is resolved and the unpromising-sounding play is a success. Perhaps not historically accurate or a plausible plotline, but entertaining nonetheless and probably still more feasible than some of the bard’s own storylines.
With witty quotations from Shakespeare’s works and cultural references to other Elizabethan writers, Hall’s adaptation of the film manages to be at once humorous, romantic and touching. Shakespeare, played by the dashing Tom Bateman and his friend and fellow writer Marlowe, played by David Oakes, have an entertaining camaraderie throughout the play: Marlowe helps the young Will to craft eloquent verse when he feels uninspired and acts as an excellent wingman by feeding what would become Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18 to him as he stands under Viola’s balcony, attempting to woo her. Oakes was really strong throughout, making it all the more poignant when Marlowe is stabbed to death in a pub brawl. (No spoilers here: that was one of the few historically accurate events of the play.) A dog called Spot (clearly named so for the “Out, damned Spot!” opportunity) features as a cameo throughout for the audience and Queen Elizabeth I to coo over, as she repeatedly mentions that she “loves a good dog” in a play.
As the play continues, so Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is played before a rather sassy Elizabeth I, portrayed by Anna Carteret. I felt that the second half was padded out a little too much with scenes from the real Romeo and Juliet. It was a nice idea initially for us to watch the play within a play (very Hamlet-esque) but it was dragged out for a little too long, although perhaps it would be ideal for people who can’t be bothered to watch the real two hours’ traffic at the Globe. That aside, I think it is a very cleverly written and performed piece of theatre that is certain to entertain anyone even vaguely familiar with Shakespeare (or, at least, Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare).
At any rate, it’s worth seeing for the dog.