(Noël Coward Theatre, London, 16 July 2014)
For the feel-good romantic comedy hit of the summer, head down to the Noël Coward Theatre on St Martin’s Lane in London, where the stage production of Shakespeare in Love has just opened for previews. It’s only been running for a few days but a friend and I went along to see it tonight and it is genuinely one of the most delightful plays I’ve ever seen. At the end we tumbled out in the London night so stuffed full of joy that we were fit to burst: comedy, love, and a bit with a dog. What more could you desire?
It’s 1593 and Will Shakespeare – actor, jobbing playwright and frustrated poet – has writer’s block. His recent play Two Gentlemen of Verona has been swiped by Richard Burbage’s rival theatre company, while Will’s own patron Philip Henslowe is being threatened by his rapacious creditor Fennyman. Will is under pressure to produce something brilliant for Henslowe to draw in the crowds and get the theatre back in the black. His new play Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter has a promising title but little else, and the more Will thinks about it the more he begins to feel that it just isn’t quite right. Despite the pirates. And the dog.
To make matters worse, his friend and fellow poet Kit Marlowe is the toast of the town, and seems to be the only man around Bankside capable of throwing off a sonnet or two. Will despairs. But then, in the auditions for Romeo and Ethel, he meets Thomas Kent: a mysterious young man who promises to be the perfect romantic lead for Will’s new play. When Will and Kit try to track Thomas down at the address he’s given – the house of the wealthy de Lesseps family – they can’t find any trace of him. But Will does see Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of the house, and falls immediately and hopelessly in love.
Little does Will realise that Viola has secrets of her own. A passionate theatre-goer, desperate to feel the thrill and camaraderie of the playhouse, she has been slipping out of her home in disguise – as none other than Thomas Kent.
I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all!
Life and art begin to twine together. Viola’s fiance Lord Wessex begins to resent the playwright he spots hanging around her house, Will finds himself being drawn deeper into an impossible love affair, and Romeo and Ethel begins morphing into something greater, bleaker and much more beautiful. On top of that, the Master of the Revels is trying to close the theatres, the actor playing Juliet is on the verge of his voice breaking, and Henslowe has bought a dog that nobody knows what to do with. It has all the hallmarks of a complete disaster. But everyone knows it will turn out well in the end. They’re just not sure how. It’s a mystery.
I must add a disclaimer: the film version of Shakespeare in Love is one of my favourites and I’ve watched it more times than I care to remember. It set a high bar for the stage version and I wasn’t prepared to be a pushover. But the play not only matched the film: it surpassed it. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay is a love letter to the theatre and it works marvellously on the stage, where plays take place within plays, and the whole of Elizabethan London unfolds between the wings. The first half was a non-stop delight. I think the first laugh came about ten seconds into the play and by the interval I had tears in my eyes and agreed with my friend that I actually didn’t want a twenty-minute break: couldn’t they just carry straight on?
My one criticism might be that the start of the second half seemed to lose momentum slightly in comparison. In a way that’s a problem with the script, because after the interval the mood changes to a minor key as the comedy of Romeo and Ethel transforms into the shimmering tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The second half has to open with a string of more serious scenes, but I don’t know whether they could be tightened somehow, to counter the feeling that, after the riotous first half, it becomes a little slow. It was only for a brief time, though. The audience never lost attention and there were some moments – particularly during the ‘performance’ of Romeo and Juliet – where the entire theatre seemed to be holding its breath. And that is a testimony to the actors.
The whole company were marvellous. I didn’t recognise many of the names, although I was very pleased to see Paul Chahidi again, who’d delighted me as Maria in Twelfth Night and who here played the put-upon Henslowe. But the main roles were splendidly cast, especially Tom Bateman as Will. I hadn’t seen him in anything before, although I know he was in Da Vinci’s Demons (I once swore I would rather nail my tongue to the table than watch it; but now I’m almost tempted). He was perfect: engaging and lively, earnest in all the right places, with fine comic timing; and, quite frankly, he was rather gorgeous. If there was anyone in the audience who didn’t come out at the end just a little bit in love with him, I’ll eat my hat. Opposite him, Lucy Briggs-Owen was equally captivating. She was wonderfully tomboyish and made a convincingly gauche young man: her Viola gave off an energy and a vibrant appetite for life which I don’t think ever quite made it through in the film. I was very envious of her beautiful Elizabethan gowns (but if I start on the costumes, we will be here all night, and it’s already past 1am, and I need to go to work in seven hours).
I was pleased to see that the stage production gives Kit Marlowe a larger presence than he has in the film: here he’s Will’s friend and rival and sometime inspiration, and I very much enjoyed the few subtle nudges I spotted to various theories about his death or authorship. David Oakes did a wonderful job: his Kit was the laconic, laid-back foil to Will’s frenzy, and he had a deliciously dry delivery. Since I have to stop somewhere, I just want to single out one more person; and the worst thing is that I don’t even know his name. He’s one of the musicians, who in this production are simply fantastic. As far as I could see they’re actors doubling up on the instruments, which sound and look Elizabethan even if they’re not actually historically accurate. And one of those actors has an astoundingly rich and glorious counter-tenor, which filled the theatre and made shivers go down the back of my neck. As I said, I don’t know which of the cast was singing, but it was simply wonderful.
In an ideal world, this production would be on at the Globe (or the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse). The set design nods to this, with a clever wooden gallery that slides back and forth to create rooms or suggest back-stage spaces, and a set of chandeliers are lowered over the stage at several points, just as I saw in The Duchess of Malfi. Moreover, there is no curtain – the beginning of each part is signalled by the actors walking onto the stage – and the production finishes with a joyful jig, just as would happen at the Globe. It all adds to the Shakespearean flavour. Oh. And, before finishing, I should add that, yes, there really is a bit with a dog; and it’s brilliant.
All in all, this is a beautifully balanced dose of unlikely love and infectious happiness. Exuberant, romantic and deliciously funny, it’s the perfect night out. See it if you can.