Shakespeare in Love was always going to be a crowd pleaser. But for Robert Reid, it’s an opportunity missed
An adaptation of a successful Hollywood movie, a romcom no less, co-written by Tom Stoppard about the young Shakespeare. This was obviously always going to be a crowd pleaser.
There’s plenty of fan service in Lee Hall’s stage adaptation: the show is filled with more Shakespeare references than you can shake a stick at. The avalanche of easter eggs gets a bit tiresome after a while. As they pile up, they start to clang against the original texts. I appreciate that audiences like to be rewarded for being well read, and I’m not against that (clearly, from my own scripts); but even for me, it felt as if the production spends a lot of time anxiously checking in with its audience.
From the first words of the play, which finds Shakespeare alone at his desk struggling to complete a sonnet, the fan service is front and centre. “Shall I compare…. Shall I compare… uh, Shall I compare the… Shall I compare thee!“ The next lines of the sonnet are so familiar that they echo loudly in my head, as they surely must for the rest of the audience. “Come on,” I seem to hear the playwright whispering in the background. “You get it, right?”
The text largely rehashes the story from the film. Young Will Shakespeare (Michael Wahr) is an emerging playwright, grifting his way through Elizabethan London, promising new plays to various debtors, notably his newest as-yet-unwritten work, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. It’s a funny joke. No one is expecting Ethel or any pirates the first time we hear it, but it quickly becomes apparent that this will be a running gag. And it doesn’t get any funnier the many times we hear it.
Like his Romeo, Young Will becomes besotted with an unavailable young woman and won’t take no for an answer. Viola (Claire van der Boom), the beautiful young noblewoman promised by her father to another man, falls just as hard and fast for Shakespeare, and disguises herself as man in order to become a player in the first stage production of Romeo and Ethel.
Amusing mistaken identities, shocking reversals and (sort of) happily-ever-afters follow. And I’m left with an overwhelming feeling of “so what?”
This is the second time in a week I’ve left a stage adaptation of a popular movie feeling this way. The decision to adapt and stage an already familiar property is understandably tempting. It’s common to assume that audiences will be more comfortable with material they are already familiar with, and companies feel more secure because it seems less risky. Yet I’m forced to ask, what is new about this Shakespeare in Love? Why do we need to see it again?
Surely the blundering love-struck young man in pursuit of an unavailable woman is a story so familiar as to be banal. Furthermore, this is the kind of “love story” that re-affirms harmful stereotypes, the kind of story that teaches young men that “no” really means “yes”. In the teen romance stories we’re familiar with, the girl refuses the boy because he’s dorky, or daggy, or unpopular – because she can’t see his true heart.
Here Viola is deeply in love with Shakespeare, even though she’s promised by her father to another man as a financial transaction. Despite the circumstances, I can’t help but feel that this is very close to the fantasy of the rejected suitor, the story that legitimises their refusal to take no for an answer? She doesn’t know the “real me”, she doesn’t know what she wants, so I have to make her see. However it’s framed, the relationships in which Viola is placed are all problematic one way or another.
It seems to me, especially right now, that the story that deserves to be excavated from Shakespeare in Love is Viola’s.
Viola, who is so entranced by the beauty of Shakespeare’s words that she is prepared to break the law in order to perform them publicly. Viola who, when she meets Shakespeare, is struggling against the law that forbids women from acting in plays (and doing most other things) in Elizabethan England. I’d like to see that story more thoughtfully brought out from the text, rather than Viola just ending up in bed with Will as the curtain closes on act one. I’d like to see her ambition rewarded with some depth and insight, instead of sidelined into a buddy comedy.
In contrast, the set and costume design are phenomenal. The stage of the State theatre is filled with warm colours, deep sky blue material drapes over the set, a picture box Elizabethan theatre that unfolds and opens and shuts to create new scenes and places. Just when you think you’ve seen everything the set has to offer, a four poster bed drops into the space. There’s a revolving tower, diminishing proscenium arches that frame the stage like a toy theatre (surely more Victorian than Renaissance), and a boat dragged across the front of the stage, ferrying Will and Viola home. It is fair to say the stage design is a visual feast.
The costumes are faux Elizabethan, all big puffy pants and doublets, but the more characters are introduced the grander the costumes become. Queen Elizabeth’s dress, for instance, is a massive affair, wide and covered in glittering jewels. Every costume feels glorious. Every set is sumptuous. Even though there’s already a small raked small stage at the base of the set, aping the Elizabethan thrust, somehow the design even manages to work a revolve in. I guess because Simon Phillips is directing.
I will say that the dog (Daisy) utterly steals the show. I remember nothing about the scenes in which the dog appears, because dog. Dog wearing a ruff, in fact. That’s magic. Dog. Ruff. It works on so many levels.
To accompany the scenes, the cast play and sing songs evocative of the period, with arrangements that are more palatably modern. However, the music and the sound effects sometimes obscure the voices and the dialogue. There are several clunky moments where the stage effects, lighting or sound aren’t quite flexible enough to allow the performance to breathe; actors find themselves just out of a spot light, or descending curtains rattle a little too loudly and pull focus. It’s nothing disastrous, but does lend a slapdash air to what is otherwise a production that should operate like clockwork.
I’m also not a fan of the theory that Christopher Marlowe (or Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere or whoever else) was really responsible for writing most of Shakespeare’s work. I think I’ve complained about this before, but it bears repeating. The myth that Shakespeare was not the real writer of his plays, for all its conspiracy-theory fun, is actually coded class prejudice. This theory can’t accept that a comparatively poor country boy with no connections, no title and no nobility might be able to write such accomplished and celebrated works. It’s no coincidence that all the alternative Shakespeares are posh boys.
Here Marlowe helps Shakespeare write Sonnet 18. Marlow also helps Shakespeare write/live the balcony scene. Even the joke title Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter is changed to Romeo and Juliet by Ned Alleyn. This myth isn’t the point of Shakespeare In Love – it’s really just more fan service – but it does reiterate the idea that proper art is for the rich, the educated and the cultured. The kind of people who are in the audience of the Playhouse Theatre on Tuesday night, in fact.
When the humour of the play isn’t trading on knowledge of the Bard, it feels more silly than anything; for instance, there’s the extended kiss between Will and Viola (while she is posing as Tom Kent). They let themselves get carried away: Viola loses herself in the kiss and gropes Shakespeare’s arse while everyone stands around looking awkward. It gets laughs, but at what expense?
Do jokes like this normalise inappropriate intimacy in rehearsal? Is that such a good idea, given the past year in Australian theatre? Is it really only a year since #metoo tore through the rehearsal rooms of the major theatres? Is this a minor quibble on my part? There are many jokes like this through the play, trading on destructive realities for their material, familiar to the point of cliché, so predictable that they’re begging their punchlines long before they’re delivered.
At the same time, there are baffling decisions such as conflating the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with the balcony scene from Cyrano de Bergerac. To what end? The plays are not contemporary: Romeo and Juliet was published in quarto in 1597 and Cyrano was published three hundred years later in 1897. So, what is the equivalence here? Is it that they both share a balcony? Is it just that another thing the audience will recognise and laugh at?
I find I am left with the same question I had after Solaris a week ago. What does this adaptation add? I keep being reminded of Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow. They both appeal to Shakespeare geeks with their references, winks, nods and deep cuts, but the TV sitcom format allows for thinner plots, where the play adheres to the already threadbare romcom dramaturgy of the movie. For one thing, Elton explores the gender politics of the Elizabethan stage far more effectively and intelligently.
As I say, the decisions to stage this work are obvious. Shakespeare in Love is a tentpole production. It’ll bring in the money to, in theory at least, support more adventurous writing. I’d like to see more adventure and fewer tentpoles. A stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love was an opportunity to reinterpret the reinterpretation and see that world through the eyes of someone other than the archetypal dead white male. An opportunity that has been missed.
If this is what we can look forward to, then I demand more dogs in shows. Please.
Shakespeare in Love, based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, adapted by Lee Hall, directed by Simon Phillips. Music by Paddy Cunneen. Set and Costume by Gabriella Tylesova. Lighting by Matt Scott. Musical Direction by Andrew Kroenert. Sound design by Kerry Saxby. Choreography by Andrew Hallsworth. Fight direction by Nigel Poulton. Cast, Michael Wahr, Claire van der Boom, Aljin Abella, Luke Arnold, Laurence Boxhall, Tyler Coppin, Daniel Frederiksen, Francis Greenslade, Peter Houghton, Andrew Kroenert, John Leary, Adam Murphy, Deidre Rubenstein, Chris Ryan, Aaron Tsindos and Daisy as Spot.
This production contains sexual references, mild violence and the use of theatrical smoke and haze.
Wheelchair Accessible, hearing Assistance
Audio Described Saturday 27 July at 2pm, Tuesday 30 July at 6.30pm
Tactile Tour Prior to the Saturday 27 July performance at 1pm
Open Captioning via screen Saturday 3 August at 2pm
Auslan Interpreted Saturday 10 August, 2pm