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Theatre Review: Shakespeare In Love (Noël Coward Theatre, London)

shakespeare in love
shakespeare in love

Merry minstrels. The Cast of ‘Shakespeare in Love’. Photograph: Courtesy of the Production.

In A Nutshell

Shakespeare in Love has a glorious new cast for this blissful sonnet to the ineffable Bard, adapted from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

Overview

William Shakespeare has writer’s block. He’s lost his muse and close friend and personal rival seems to be filling in his blanks. Viola, a pent up daughter of a wealthy merchant longs to be in theatre. Disguised as a boy, she auditions for Shakespeare’s new play Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. But Shakespeare has fallen in love with Viola as Viola, who has rekindled his creative spark, and unbeknownst to him has been right under his nose as his leading man. But can their love ever be, with Viola’s arranged marriage into aristocracy on the horizon?

Writing

Based on Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for the Oscar winning film of the same name, Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love is an upstanding celebration of everything Bill the Bard. It starts off a bit of an unabashed reference-fest, which is fun to begin with, but could easily have become dreary. But thankfully, Shakespeare in Love settles down to become a brilliant piece in its own right.

The parallels between Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night in William and Viola’s shenanigans are very familiar throughout. But there’s enough playful askew and subtle bucks to keep things fresh. You know the stories, but your interested to see just how different the “inspiration” is: and it’s niftily paced and unpredictable at that. Not to mention Shakespeare in Love comes to a heartbreaking and moving conclusion that will have you close to tears.

Interweaving bits of actual Shakespearian text, the show not only celebrates the impact of Shakespeare and his astonishing prose, but also the beauty of his works. Yet, what’s outstanding is that Shakespeare in Love finds a beauty and deftness in its own words and poetry that resonate with Shakespeare’s. There are passages that aren’t Shakespeare that are just as imaginative and romantic. Put this all together and you don’t ever feel like you got butchered Bard with second rate filler, but complimentary and brilliant writing that blends the old and the current marvellously well.

There’s also little references too that are used to flesh out Shakespeare as a character, even though, historically, little is known about his private life. It’s really nice to see hints at Shakespeare’s possible bisexuality with him snogging boys on stage, and also in the close and tender “bromance” he has with Christopher Marlowe. It also knowingly winks at many academic suggestions that Marlowe may have been involved in writing some of Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare in Love is a show that certainly knows its subject matter, embraces the variations and the assumptions that history has been making, and turns them into a whole load of fun with knowing love and admiration.

A Queen among plays. The cast of 'Shakespeare in Love'. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

A Queen among plays. The cast of ‘Shakespeare in Love’. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Direction and Production

What’s most surprising is that this isn’t the most “West End” and exuberant of staging. The set for Shakespeare in Love is comparatively bear and simple but for Nick Ormerod’s three tier wooden balconies, with some chandeliers flown in every so often and a hidden pub bar in the panels. It certainly isn’t cheap or lackadaisical and still manages to look impactful, but it’s just not the extravaganza you might have hoped for. In saying that, it easily conjures up everything from the Rose Theatre to Elizabethan mansions with its beautiful build and quality. Yet it needn’t do anything more, and could easily do less than it already does without taking away from the show. This is because as under Declan Donnellan’s direction it’s the marvellous writing that steals the show, and everything else is just dressing. All the writing needs is a space and the room for it to blossom, and Ormerod’s set and Donnellan’s direction ensures this happens.

However, that’s not to say Donelllan doesn’t do much: far from it. He constantly fills the space and adds a wonderful pace and activity at every given opportunity. In scenes where the entire cast are present there are flourishes of activity in every nook. But even there is only a handful of company on stage, it’s still a Donellan still commands a whirlwind or activity and never for a second feels static or dragging.

Helping to do this is a wonderful medley of live music and dance, using traditional Jacobian music, including the talents of a genuine counter-tenor. Whilst it certainly wreaks of a bygone time and place, it never sounds antiquated or labouring but incredibly spritely and lively. Add to this Jane Gibson’s choreography and the result is intoxicating.

Donellan and his production team for Shakespeare in Love fills every inch of the stage with joy and wonder, and transports you to a blissful place like very few shows can.

shakespeare in love

A cast by any other brilliance. Orlando James (left) as William Shakespeare and Eve Ponsonby (right) as Viola. Photograph: Courtesy of the Production.

Cast

Leading the new cast is Orlando James as William and Even Ponsonby as Viola, and I honestly don’t think you can get a better pair. They are so wonderful on stage together, and brim not just with chemistry but an engrossing romance between them. It gets to the point where you’re aching for them to have their happy ever after. But what’s more, when they act out scenes from Shakespeare’s actual plays, you’re astonished at how natural and gorgeous their turns at them are. In fact, I would very much like to see James and Ponsonby actually lead a production of Romeo and Juliet they’re that good at what they do.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast is also brilliant. Edward Franklin as Marlowe is wonderfully swanky and works has a brilliant rapport with James making you feel they could well be best friends off stage as well as on. Joy Richardson as the nurse is also robustly bombastic and brings life and laughter to any scene she’s in.

Verdict

If Shakespeare in Love be the show of dreams, play on! A heady and ravishing romp that celebrates one of the world’s greatest writers with perfect affection.

Shakespeare in Love runs at the Noël Coward Theatre, London, WC2N 4AU, until 18 April 2015. Tickets are £15 – £57.50. To book, visit www.officialtheatre.com.

Thanks to Official Theatre and Seat Plan (www.seatplan.com) for making this review possible.