by Lee Hall
Directed by Declan Donnellan
At the Avon Theatre. Till October 16, 2016
Shakespeare has been singularly unfortunate in many of his tinkers and tailors who have operated out of his age and time to cut him down to size and take the mystique out of his myth. Shakespeare in Love, both on film and now on stage, take him down many notches to groundling level, representing him as an awful literary stumblebum who needs the collective help of assorted tavern habitues to help him with a bad case of writer’s block or the individual help of Kit Marlowe who does not resent in the slightest being plagiarized by a verbally clumsy upstart. Despite the considerable cachet of Tom Stoppard (responsible for the screenplay in collaboration with Marc Norman), and the undeniable colour, verve, and virtuosity of Dame Judi Dench as Elizabeth I and Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe, as well as an undeserved number of Oscars, the film failed to charm me overall. I could not believe Gwyneth Paltrow as an Elizabethan, either in her female self as Viola de Lesseps or in her male stage disguise in the Rose Theatre, and I certainly am not moved, charmed, or impressed by Declan Donnellan’s production, in which Shannon Taylor is more concerned with her English accent than with characterization and texture.
The stage version is virtually a carbon copy of the plot and characters of the film. Our Will here is reported to have some potential, as he struggles with a sonnet and then a play entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter that he has promised to two rival theatres. He meets beautiful Viola de Lesseps who yearns for a stage career (even though this is outlawed for women of the era), falls in love, suffers complications, but overcomes his writer’s block. The stage version has limited value: a triple-level section of the Rose Theatre, with movable parts; a swashbuckling moment or two; a romance between its young, callow Will and Viola (disguised as a boy in Henslowe’s company); lute music and ballads; and winning performances by Karen Robinson as Nurse (a forerunner of Juliet’s), Sarah Orenstein as regal Elizabeth (avoiding any imitation of Dame Judi), Tom McCamus as pragmatic but tyrannical Fennyman, Stephen Ouimette as comically frustrated Henslowe, and a dog named Spot (who gives rise to the predictable joke: “Out, damned spot!”). Luke Humphrey is sweet, innocent, sometimes too much of a dunderhead as Shakespeare, and he is forced to enlist Marlowe as his Cyrano when attempting to woo Viola under a balcony. Impossible to reconcile him with the Shakespeare of the great plays. The rest is grist to the broadly comic mill. Brad Hodder as Ned Alleyn and Steve Ross as Burbage provide no more than a single facet of characterization, and others are used as jokey references to characters and lines of dialogue from the real Shakespeare in his time. Swarthy complexioned Saamer Usmani is a flamboyant Marlowe, whom he plays lightly and busily on his feet. There are inside jokes, of course: a Boatman (Mike Nadajewski) who eagerly offers his massive play to Shakespeare; hapless amateurs auditioning for a role at the Rose; Tillney, the censorious Master of Revels, acting like Malvolio; complaints about the recycling of Verona as setting; and all-too-recognizable lines from some of the Bard’s most famous plays. In the baldest terms, this show is the dumbing down of Shakespeare that is only half as entertaining as Something Rotten!, a far better parody of musicals and Shakespeare, and far more energetic and colourful.