Winner of seven 1999 Academy Awards, including best original screenplay for Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, Shakespeare in Love is an ode to theatre. So why it took 15 years to reach the stage is “a mystery”, as the real-life character of Philip Henslowe often says. Five years later, Lee Hall’s adaptation has finally made its way to Melbourne, in this lavish, well-cast production that will swell theatre-lovers’ hearts with joy.
Michael Wahr in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Shakespeare in Love. Photo © Jeff Busby
The script is a close adaptation of the film, with a young Will Shakespeare struggling to write his new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. The pressure is on – not just for him, but seemingly everyone in London’s nascent theatre scene, including playhouse owner Henslowe and rival Richard Burbage, as ego, censorship and scarce funds build an atmosphere of creative chaos. Will meets heiress Viola de Lesseps, who dresses as a boy in order to tread the boards. During rehearsals for his evolving play, he discovers her true identity and their forbidden love inspires what becomes Romeo and Juliet.
Most of Shakespeare in Love’s many jokes are lifted from the screenplay. Some are easy gags even Shakespeare dilettantes will get a laugh from, such as the cry of “Out, damn Spot!” when Spot the dog makes one of her brief appearances – yes, there’s a real dog (called Daisy), a little scrap of a thing who upstages everyone by doing almost nothing.
Other comic elements will tickle the fancy of those more learned in literary history, including the young dogsbody who loves gory theatre turning out to be John Webster, and Christopher Marlowe feeding Shakespeare story ideas and lines. It’s also rich with in-jokes about theatre itself, such as the play-within-a-play’s financial backer, Hugh Fennymen, introducing himself as “the money”, then being bitten by the acting bug when offered a small part. The dog’s inclusion is of course a humorous best case scenario for not working with animals and children.
Spot only briefly upstages this Melbourne Theatre Company production’s mostly multi-tasking cast of 14, who often fill but never seem to crowd the cosy stage. They have been well guided and rehearsed by director Simon Phillips, who brings his A-game to a show that glides along with effortless pace, humour and tenderness.
Claire van der Boom and Michael Wahr. Photo © Jeff Busby
Michael Wahr is both lively and sensitive as Will. Whether in female or faux-male mode, Claire van der Boom’s Viola exudes sincerity – there’s no milking the cross-dressing for laughs. The supporting cast is splendid, particularly Deidre Rubenstein, who switches between Viola’s kindly nurse and a show-stoppingly imperious, canny Elizabeth I (her costume changes must be a nightmare at one or two points in the performance).
Luke Arnold has an appealingly restrained suavity as Will’s mate Marlowe, and Chris Ryan stays just the right side of commanding confidence as star actor Ned Alleyn. He’s among a handful of cast members who occasionally sing and play some of the appealing Elizabethan-style tunes composed by Paddy Cunneen for the original adaptation, which premiered in London’s West End.
Tyler Coppin, Daniel Frederiksen, Chris Ryan, Deidre Rubenstein, Francis Greenslade, Adam Murphy and Claire van der Boom. Photo © Jeff Busby
The music adds to the beautifully realised 16th century London designed by Gabriela Tylesova, whose costumes and set for MTC’s fabulous 2018 Twelfth Night just won a Helpmann Award. Rightly so, and she may be up for another for Shakespeare in Love, which apparently boasts 80 costumes handcrafted in-house. There’s an abundance of beautiful fabrics, beading and Elizabethan slashing, ruffs, farthingale skirts and more ‘puffling pants’ than an entire season of Shakespearean sitcom Upstart Crow.
Tylesova’s set drives home why Shakespeare in Love belongs in the theatre even more than the cinema, because here all the world’s a stage. The action takes place on a raked, Elizabethan-style apron stage, with a trapdoor and turntable that are both rarely but deftly used. There’s a balcony atop a revolving tower to the side, a painting of London from above as the backdrop, and a flimsy stage curtain that aids the clever spatial conceit of the finale’s mini-performance of Romeo and Juliet.
While it just stops short of bring brilliant – there are no truly outstanding performances and the script is sometimes a little silly, probably intentionally so – nearly every moment of Shakespeare in Love is pure theatrical pleasure.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s Shakespeare in Love is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until August 14