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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE – Noël Coward Theatre, London.

shakespeare in love, noel coward theatre, london

Photo by Johan Persson

Shall I compare thee to the Oscar-winning movie? It’s an inescapable association, but one this new stage version embraces wholeheartedly, with faithful re-creations of beloved scenes and the majority of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s ingenious screenplay retained. Yet unlike the proliferation of dubious screen-to-stage offerings, Shakespeare in Love is persuasive in its argument that it is an innately theatrical piece, peppering its ‘greatest hits’ adaptation with enough industry in-jokes and strong staging choices to attract discerning audiences alongside the inevitable film fans and tourists.

Adaptor Lee Hall also makes the smart decision to shift the focus from the somewhat schmaltzy romance to the complex process of mounting a production, with the doomed union of young Will Shakespeare and Lady Viola de Lesseps more a creative coming of age for the aspiring poet and blossoming actress. Greater attention is paid to the backstage politics, petty rivalries, blinding panic of writer’s block, excruciating auditions (including a hilarious dash of mime), frenzied first night, and, of course, the business of show, with the decidedly prosaic financial wrangling balancing the musings on the transformative power of art.

Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, taking on director and designer duties respectively, demonstrate their peerless ease with classical drama in marshalling a company of 28 (plus one dog) and conjuring a rich, bustling Elizabethan world within the three-tiered playhouse set. Backstage and onstage are clearly delineated, to great effect, and the action is always observed from above – this Shakespeare in Love blurs the boundaries even more between art and life. Donnellan employs economical use of props, swift transitions and pleasingly theatrical solutions, such as water splashed in a bucket to evoke a boat paddling along the Thames.

Paddy Cunneen’s music is a highlight, with period instruments and soaring plainsong helping to set scenes and punctuate emotional beats, and Jane Gibson’s layered dance sequences are incorporated seamlessly into the drama. The Shakespearean tropes are all present and correct, from gender swapping to ill-fated lovers, plus a few added Bard barbs – brush up your Shakespeare if you wish to join in the knowing chortles. This energetic production does play to the balcony, hamming up the farce, milking gags and knowingly pausing for laughter one too many times, but stops short of all-out panto.

Tom Bateman’s ink-stained Will is a virile firebrand, exhibiting the impetuousness and self-absorption of youth, but undeniably endearing in his blind pursuit of Viola. In the capable hands of Lucy Briggs-Owen, the object of his affection is fully formed, swapping the blank canvas of pretty muse for a satisfyingly complex, intelligent rendering. Her musical verse speaking is spine-tingling, but her deliberately quirky, breathy dialogue delivery lacks support and will likely prove divisive, particularly among those beyond the stalls straining to hear.

Another successful Hall addition is the beefed-up bromance between Will and fellow playwright Kit Marlowe; here, Marlowe plays Cyrano for tongue-tied Will, casually improvising a seductive sonnet in between eye rolls. David Oakes’ sardonic portrayal is a delight, and the loss of Marlowe is felt all the more. Similarly scene-stealing are Ferdy Roberts as the bankrolling cockney geezer who falls in love with Theatre and Colin Ryan’s twitchy, bloodthirsty young Webster, while rival impresarios Henslowe and Burbage are relished by Paul Chahidi and David Ganly, the former squirming out of tight spots, the latter a marvellous booming luvvie luxuriating in his fruity vowels. 

Alistair Petrie provides a strong counterpoint as Wessex, the pompous businessman unromantically acquiring a wife, and Anna Carteret’s imperious Elizabeth I is every inch the grande dame playing to the crowd. Doug Rao dons Captain Jack Sparrow locks and guyliner as vain star Ned, Abigail McKern is a robust Nurse, Tony Bell sweet as stuttering tailor Ralph, and Ian Bartholomew deliciously obsequious as Master of the Revels. Special mention must go to Thomas Padden as the London cabbie-esque Boatman, a repeated joke that lands just as well second time round.

Hall and Donnellan’s production successfully retains the winning screwball vibe of the film while astutely developing the meta-theatricality, earning the longer extracts from Romeo and Juliet and capturing the thrill of thespians stepping out into the unknown, trusting the magic of the moment. How does it all come together? In the play’s oft-repeated mantra, it’s a mystery. But it will be no mystery if this appealing adaptation becomes another blockbuster hit for Sonia Friedman, both here and on the other side of the pond.

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Reviewed 23/07/14/

By Marianka Swain

2nd July – 25th October
Noël Coward Theatre, London, WC2N.

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