This is my 100th post! So I think it’s appropriate to use it for something that brings together many of my favourite things – theatre, Shakespeare, a nice love story, a little bit of sword fighting, a bit with a dog… and Mr Darcy.
For anyone who thinks that seems an unlikely combination, let me explain. I’m talking about Shakespeare in Love – The Play, which I saw last weekend at the Noël Coward Theatre in London’s West End. It’s based on the 1998 movie (yes, it was that long ago – I realised when I looked for my copy and found it in the video collection that I’m stubbornly hanging on to) and is the story of a young Will Shakespeare, strapped for cash and struggling with his latest masterpiece, a comedy called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Never heard of it? Well that’s because Will happens to meet Viola de Lesseps, a young woman ranked far above him in society, and engaged to the stuffy and obnoxious Lord Wessex. The star-crossed love affair between Will and Viola inspires him to write the play we know today as Romeo and Juliet. Meanwhile, just to add to the chaos, Viola’s decided she wants to be an actor, but being a lady she’s not allowed, so she dresses up as a boy and goes to audition for Will’s play. As you do.
Now obviously, I’m a Shakespeare fan, so I was always going to enjoy myself, but I can honestly say I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun at the theatre. I often wish that seeing a show in the West End wasn’t so expensive – well ok, if I’m honest what I actually wish is that I had more money. But anyway, if either of those things were true, I’d be booking my tickets right now to go and see this play again. And then again.
I should probably explain how Mr Darcy ended up in there. One of the major differences between the movie and the play is the significantly greater role played by Kit Marlowe, Shakespeare’s friend and rival playwright. In the film, he only appears in two short scenes, and Rupert Everett, who plays him, isn’t even credited. So I was a bit disappointed when I heard that David Oakes (a.k.a. Mr Darcy from last year’s Pride and Prejudice at Regent’s Park) was playing Marlowe, thinking we wouldn’t see much of him. Fortunately, I was wrong. He pops up all over the place, helping Will out not only with his writing but also in his clumsy attempts to woo Viola, the two of them reduced on more than one occasion to a pair of naughty schoolboys. Marlowe’s got a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a dry wit that, together, make for a very attractive combination. At least, I thought so.
Shakespeare himself is played by Tom Bateman, who pulls off the frustrated genius and lovelorn poet to perfection. As the play opens, he’s attempting to write his (now) famous sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, but having trouble putting his words together, to the point where you want to jump on stage and help him out. And his foolish naivety where Viola’s concerned reminds us that love can turn even the cleverest of us into a gibbering wreck.
Most of the play is very funny, with lots of in-jokes for the Shakespeare aficionado but also plenty to keep the non-fan entertained. Anyone who knows anything about Romeo and Juliet can enjoy the way it evolves from a pirate comedy into the tragedy of doomed lovers, separated by fate just as Will and Viola seem destined to be. The mayhem that naturally ensues from girls playing boys and boys playing girls, and then a girl playing a girl but pretending to be a boy playing a girl (confused yet?!) kept us laughing from the start. Particular respect to Lucy Briggs-Owen, who plays Viola, and the wardrobe team for the many lightning fast changes from Viola the lady to Viola the moustachioed young man.
It wasn’t all laughs though – just like in Romeo and Juliet, everything goes a bit wrong in the second half, and on top of that they put us through the trauma of watching the death scene at the end of the play within the play (the second time in under a month, as we saw Romeo and Juliet itself only a few weeks ago). But unlike the tragedy, every emotional scene was quickly followed by some light relief, so we were never teary-eyed for long – at least not in a sad way.
The relatively small cast doubled up on roles and did their own set changes (not that there were many of these; they mostly consisted of wheeling Viola’s bed on and off stage). The accompanying music was provided throughout by a band of three talented singers and musicians, with support from the rest of the cast. Consequently, the whole performance flowed smoothly, with no awkward pauses between scenes, and you got the feeling the actors were all enjoying themselves just as much as we were.
Shakespeare in Love was, for me, the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon. It was intelligent, without hurting my brain, and moving, without being too traumatic. And I laughed – a lot.
Finally, let’s not forget the star of the show, Gaiety the dog (or possibly Barney, I’m not sure), who was the only member of the cast to get a round of applause mid-scene. Which just goes to show that Mr Henslowe was right:
‘Love, and a bit with a dog – that’s what they want.’
(PS Funnily enough, I had a bit of writer’s block myself on this post. I imagine that’s the only way in which Shakespeare and I will ever be alike.)