Shakespeare In Love
Noél Coward Theatre
July 8 2014
Not too long ago, a clever theatre director was lamenting the fact that modern plays are too “in the moment” and will not, like those of Shaw, Ibsen, Euripides, Shakespeare, Webster, Inge, Williams, Albee, Chekov, Marlowe, Wilde and Coward (he listed others, but you get the idea) be revived again and again in a century’s time. No latter 20th Century writers met the grade, he said.
At least in one respect, he must be wrong. The work of Tom Stoppard will surely live on well after his and our deaths.
Partly, the proof of this can be found onstage at the Noël Coward Theatre on the West End, where Declan Donnelan’s production of Shakespeare In Love, written by Stoppard with Marc Norman and adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, is now in previews.
It is difficult to recall, at least over the course of the last seven years, a commercial production of a new play which has opened directly in the West End and which is as funny, dramatic, enthralling and educational (not about history, but about the essence of theatre). Excepting Chariots of Fire, no stage adaptation of a successful film (musicals aside) has come close to the success managed here.
We saw its sixth public performance. It opens on July 27. So, it is still in its formative stages. But, even so, it is in impressive, terrific shape and must be a sure-fire international hit (Disney is backing it).
On the face of it, the play is a knockabout farce with a lustful love story at its heart, and a wholly successful one. It’s genuinely laugh-out loud funny in parts, but there are moments of aching, tender beauty and raw desperation. It is played with clarity and finesse; vastly entertaining.
But the play is much more than that. It is an introduction to and exploration of the language, structure and characters brought to immortality by Shakespeare. And in this it is profoundly clever, intellectually satisfying, occasionally insightful or questioning and always refreshing and seductive.
In form, it is somewhat like Twelfth Night mashed up with The Merchant of Venice, Henry V and, of course, Romeo and Juliet. Along the way, there are clear quotes or references to most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays and his most famous Sonnet. And some of the characters here are clear shadows of famous characters from the plays: The Lord Chamberlain is a barely disguised Malvolio, even to the extent of being imprisoned; Sam has a touch of Thisbe; Wessex reeks of Andrew Aguecheek but with some brains; Burbidge wants his pound of flesh from Shakespeare a la Shylock but also manages a Hal-esque moment of great impact; Viola’s Nurse echoes Juliet’s nurse; Ned Alleyn personifies Mercutio with more than a touch of Hotspur; the Boatman channels the spirit of the Porter and Gravedigger. It’s all clever and evocative.
Essentially, Stoppard and Norman pick up this speech from Two Gentlemen of Verona and use it as the compelling spine of the loving theatrical frolics that follow:
What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by
And feed upon the shadow of perfection
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me to look upon;
She is my essence, and I leave to be,
If I be not by her fair influence
Foster’d, illumined, cherish’d, kept alive.
I fly not death, to fly his deadly doom:
Tarry I here, I but attend on death:
But, fly I hence, I fly away from life.
If seeing this production does nothing more than expose audiences to this glorious passage, it would be enough. But, happily, it overflows in gifts.
The acting is superb.
Lucy Briggs-Owen is outstandingly good as the theatre-obsessed Shakespeare-obsessed Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a rich merchant sold in marriage to the horrid Wessex. So desperate is Viola for the theatre that she dresses as a man and auditions for the premiere performance of Shakespeare’s new play, which eventually turns out to be Romeo and Juliet. Briggs-Owen commands the stage effortlessly and she is just as effective as the gangly, shy Tom Kent as she is as the bubbly, dreamy Viola – but she shines with particular radiance when she plays Viola playing the original Juliet in the key Balcony scene and the double suicide scene from the end of the play.
If this does not make Briggs-Owen a star, there is no justice. She is infinitely better than Gwyneth Paltrow was in the film. She is luminous in every way. Her command of the language is particularly wonderful; first, when she delivers the “If Sylvia be not seen” speech for Queen Elizabeth 1 (a tremendous, controlled and highly skilled turn from Anna Carteret); second, when she proves to be the first of the cast to understand how to deliver Shakespeare’s words with beauty and care; thirdly, when she gives a tender, nuanced and completely, madly, in love Juliet in the premiere performance of the play for the Queen.
It’s a wonderful, world-class turn, full of beauty, gentleness, raw passion and enthralling skill.
She is helped in this, in no small measure, by Tom Bateman’s exhilarating turn as Shakespeare. He is at his best when playing Romeo, but his scenes throughout with Briggs-Owen are vibrant, sexy and simply wonderful. He is masculine and artistic, driven and dreaming, arrogant and unsure – it’s a layered and deeply considered performance of compelling skill. He personifies the sex and poetry of Shakespeare.
His handsome, virile, Byronesque charm ensures the famous Balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is joyfully and robustly romantic – and it provides the emotional high-point of the evening, a volcanic expression of romantic joie de vivre. He has no trouble being the now faltering, soon to be unstoppable, poet and the agile hearty lover of women.
But, equally, his relationship with Marlowe (David Oakes, absolutely terrific, as the successful gay rival who loves him so) is fabulous and the Cyrano moment when they compose a version of “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day” is perfection. These are two men of the theatre who love each other and who inspire each other – and Bateman is remarkable in expressing Shakespeare’s grief when Marlowe is killed, just as he is remarkable when he realises what his casual mention of his abandoned wife does to Violet’s innocent heart.
Together, Bateman and Briggs-Owen are a sumptuous treat – and you believe every moment of their journey together, from the languid relaxed post-coital nude scene (very impressive from the Circle) to the aching reconciliation following the revelation-of-a-wife heartbreak and then the shattering, final parting.
The ensemble is great. As Sam, the young lad who ordinarily plays the female roles in Shakespeare’s plays, Harry Jardine is pure delight, although his “no voice” acting in the second half needs tempering. Paul Chahidi is completely at home, deliciously chewy, as the slippery Henslowe and Alistair Petrie is the very model of the Tudor Major Buffoon. Doug Rao shines as Ned Alleyn, the narcissistic actor who creates the role of Mercutio and Ferdy Roberts is wonderful as Fennyman, an investor who comes to love the theatre and hilariously plays the blue-hatted Apothecary. David Ganly is gruff and bear-like as the irascible, determined Burbage, but shines in his rallying speech when he offers his own theatre for the first performance of Romeo and Juliet.
One of the great things here is that the sense of the company of actors, of that rare and special bond that comes from rehearsing a play and sharing a stage, is beautifully conveyed. The bonhomie, the joy of performing, the dazzling lure of the footlights – all brilliantly displayed and truly heartfelt.
And the swordfighting is exemplary (Take a bow, Terry King), thrilling in parts quite unexpectedly.
Nick Ormerod’s set is marvellous, a kind of fusion of the spaces made so familiar at the Globe and the new Sam Wanamaker theatres. Wooden floors, and moving wooden balconies easily suggest the intimacy of the theatre spaces of those times and provide simple mechanisms for moving the action from onstage to backstage and then elsewhere. Neil Austin’s lighting is terrifically effective, especially in the most romantic and haunting scenes. The use of candelabras is inspired.
There is a lot of music from Paddy Cunneen which is suitably frisky or haunting as the occasion demands – but the lead counter-tenor is hopelessly out of tune and extremely loud and this negatively affects the impact of the music and its overall enjoyment. Jane Gibson’s choreography is simple and gracious, all suitably period.
Donnellan directs with style and the many scenes move fluidly and seamlessly on, without confusion, but with appropriate and inspired emphasis on the highs and lows of the central characters.
This is an exuberant, thoroughly enthralling production of a masterful piece of writing.
The theatre was full of people who were consulting their mobile devices throughout the evening, often at the moments riven with tension. Four separate phones were whipped out as Romeo committed suicide; not for photo taking of the action, but to send texts or consult the stock exchange(!) or check social networks (not Facebook or Instagram…)
When will it be a defence to a charge of murder to say that the deceased used a mobile phone during the course of a live theatrical performance? When will ushers patrol the aisles properly and remove those who use their phones in the theatre during the performance?
Even better, when will people who want to use their phones during a live theatrical performance just stay home and do it in their lounge room?
Never mind the lawyers; kill all mobile devices users in theatres first! (With apologies to Dick from Henry VI Part 2)