The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love has its passionate defenders. Nevertheless, it’s perhaps remembered now less for its merits than for being the movie that somehow beat strong, arguably more enduring contenders — such as Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line — to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. (In a way, the real winner was Harvey Weinstein, who ran a very shrewd marketing campaign.)
Marc Norman‘s and Tom Stoppard’s Oscar-winning script was always the film’s secret weapon, which is lucky for the new stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love. Like restoration architects who strip what seems like a merely adequate building down to its infrastructure, and then construct something majestic from the ground up, the talents behind this production have created an exquisite, dizzyingly detailed work that’s better than its progenitor in every way and yet still honors the original’s legacy.
It’s been widely reported that a few years ago, Stoppard himself grappled with adapting the screenplay for the stage but gave up. Various twists and turns landed the project with Disney Theatrical Productions and British theater uber-producer Sonia Friedman (The Book of Mormon), which led to Lee Hall (the writer of Billy Elliot on both screen and stage, and screenwriter of War Horse) retooling the script. The resulting text conserves both the basic plot and the vast bulk of Stoppard’s and Norman’s crisp, zinger-stuffed dialogue, especially the knowing quotes from plays that Shakespeare, the main character here, will write one day but hasn’t yet in the story’s 1593 time frame. (Lady Macbeth’s “Out, out, damn spot!” is addressed to a frisky pooch, for example.)
Hall has tweaked the way the love story progresses between struggling actor-playwright Will Shakespeare (Tom Bateman) and noblewoman-cum-thespian Viola De Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen), but in ways that are barely perceptible and only improve the pacing. Otherwise, it’s very much the same story, with Will struggling to write what evolves into Romeo and Juliet (original title: Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter) for the troupe run by bumbling Henslowe (Paul Chahidi), using a motley cast of players with a cross-dressing Viola in the lead as Romeo.
Further interference arises from her betrothal to mustachioed villain Wessex (Alistair Petrie); flak from backer Fennyman (Ferdy Roberts) and rival impresario Richard Burbage (David Ganly); and meddlesome surveillance from the censorious Lord Chamberlain (Ian Bartholomew), acting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth (Anna Carteret). Meanwhile, the divine laws of drama dictate that all the above conflicts must be resolved by the end, which they are, but in a way that satisfyingly juxtaposes Shakespearean and modern notions of dramaturgy.
It’s that electric tension between Elizabethan and contemporary elements that gives this production its distinctive crackle in the hands of director Declan Donnellan (co-founder of acclaimed Shakespeare-centric company Cheek by Jowl) and his crew. On the one hand, the timber-clad, multstoried set designed by CBJ co-founder Nick Ormerod, stripped of adornment, evokes the “wooden O” stage name-checked in Henry V.
Choreographer Jane Gibson has done her research on the dance forms of the period, while great pains have been taken by composer Paddy Cunneen to reproduce the musical soundscape of the time. The music is performed live on stage throughout by actor-musicians armed with period instruments like viols, the baroque oboe and a piercingly lovely counter-tenor voice.
And yet, the staging is bracingly modern and inventive. Donnellan plays ceaselessly with perspective, especially during the climactic performance of Romeo and Juliet, which keeps reversing the location of the fourth wall, so the audience can watch the antics both onstage and backstage all at once. Such shenanigans could come off as gimmicky or confusing, but somehow they don’t here. It all snaps together with the original screenplay’s literary meta-games, which suddenly get that wee bit more meta from being performed in a theater instead of on film. Even the self-congratulatory smugness that seemed to emanate off the material onscreen has been burnt away here, perhaps because everyone’s clearly working so damn hard.
None of all that would be worth squat if the cast weren’t up to the task, but thankfully they are. Bateman and Briggs-Owen take complete ownership of the lead roles, and far outshine Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in the film version, although for some that might be damning with faint praise. Briggs-Owen sometimes fidgets a little too much, but that nervous energy also suggests an intelligence that Paltrow didn’t convey. Space restrictions here prohibit listing the many charms of the remaining 27 castmembers, but suffice it to say there’s not a single creaky wheel in the whole intricate contraption.
Cast: Tom Bateman, Lucy Briggs-Owen, David Oakes, Anna Carteret, Paul Chahidi, David Ganly, Harry Jardine, Doug Rao, Colin Ryan, Alistair Petrie, Ian Bartholomew
Director: Declan Donnellan
Playwright: Lee Hall, based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Designer: Nick Ormerod
Costume supervisor: Bushy Westfalen
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Sound designer: Simon Baker
Choreography: Jane Gibson
Fight direction: Terry King
Presented by Disney Theatrical Productions & Sonia Friedman Productions