Young Shakespeare, a struggling player and playwright, falls for the upper-class Viola de Lesseps, not knowing that she has dressed as a boy to join his cast. She is to be given in marriage to a boorish aristocrat, and it all goes wrong enough to inspire him to write Romeo And Juliet.
Mills & Boon stuff? You betcha. The film was pop-schlock: posters blaring “love is the only inspiration” – but was redeemed by the wit of co-author Tom Stoppard, with sly theatrical in-jokes and pleasurably recognizable references: a Banquo moment, a Malvolio moment, an Othello joke. Now it gains another authorial layer: the stage premiere is adapted by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliott, and directed with fun-loving brio by Declan Donnellan. Whose only real mistake is letting it run a good ten minutes too long.
He adds one particularly precious gift. The film’s Oscar-winning Viola was Gwyneth Paltrow: glacially glamorous but not noted for humour. Whereas Donnellan has cast that gorgeously antic spirit and adornment of the RSC, Lucy Briggs-Owen. She is that rare mixture, a sly comedienne who is also an honest conduit of emotional truth. I am less sure about Tom Bateman’s Will, but it is not a cherishable part: a sulky hunk dependent on Kit Marlowe (a nice ironic David Oakes) for his best ideas but oafishly giving Kit’s name to get himself out of trouble. He conceals the existence of his wife and twins at Stratford from his trusting virginal admirer, and succumbs to self-pity when Marlowe is killed. Even in a pastiche, this combination of caddishnesses makes it dangerously hard to believe in the great words and sentiments emanating from him.
Great cameos,though. Colin Ryan is the creepy boy Webster who loves corpses, Ferdy Roberts the backer “I am the money!” seduced by the offer of a bit-part and fretting about his hat; Henslowe and Burbage the rival impresarios, and Anna Carteret coolly magnificent as Queen Elizabeth The in-jokes keep on coming: rehearsals full of “insurmountable obstacles on the way to immiment disaster”, funny auditions, and Henslowe’s wailing insistence that a play needs comedy, love interest “and a dog”. The dog is real, and achieves glory near the end (I assume Alistair Petrie has a portion of steak secreted up his gallygaskins to create one pleasing moment. It also permits the line “out damned Spot” (should have cast a dalmatian).
At times it did all feel like a we-know-Shakespeare sixth-form revue, though Briggs-Owen’s balance of exuberant clowning and real sharp emotion always raises it. But Donnellan deftly manages the switchback between well-rendered tragic verse and bathos, and there are splendid fights, especially the stage-fencing rehearsal which degenerates into a real brawl.
It is beautifully set within a section of Elizabethan theatre, balconies serving for domestic – and, of course, balcony – scenes; conversations are held in circling, stamping galliards, and group compositions are fit to paint. There’s also a nice conceit whereby non-participants hang around on the galleries watching scenes. Paddy Cunneen composes the incidental music (on which rather too much of the mood depends): the songs oddly shrill but the instrumentals mellow.
So who’s it for? Teenagers will enjoy the permission to roust and laugh about the too-often sacred Bard, summer visitors score a Shakespeare-lite experience without getting rained on, fighting for a parking spot in Stratford or having to puzzle over which Lord is which and why the sentences work backwards. I really wanted to love it, and thank it for some laughs and for Briggs-Owen. But to be honest it isn’t quite funny enough, or quite clever enough, or quite touching enough.
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