by John Lombard
Melbourne Theatre Company
Canberra Theatre, 23 August 2019
Have sympathy for Shakespeare. With a reputation as a poet, his lovers expect sonnets on command, and he can’t always deliver.
Talk about performance issues.
Michel Wahr is Will Shakespeare on the cusp of fame, still in the shadow of friendly rival Kit Marlowe (Luke Arnold) but with a growing reputation as a writer of promise.
While contracted to deliver a new comedy, the eagerly anticipated Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, Shakespeare meets the beautiful but engaged Viola de Lesseps (Claire Van Der Boom). Their forbidden romance invigorates Shakespeare’s writing, but shifts his creative taste from comedy to tragic romance.
Based on the 1998 film by writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, and adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, director Simon Phillips improves on the clever but mawkish film with vivacious performances and snappy pacing.
The writers make the Elizabethan era familiar with comforting modern touches. The special at the pub is pig’s foot, but the waiter describes it with the gourmet detail of single origin coffee at a Melbourne cafe. In another skit, a garrulous ferry driver foists their work on Shakespeare like a hopeful taxi driver slipping a screenplay to a producer.
Fans of Shakespeare will also note many quotes from his work, as though Shakespeare is filing away these conversational gems for future use. “Out damn spot” an actor bellows at a dog disrupting their star moment before the Queen.
Wahr and Van Der Boom are convincing lovers. With de Lesseps disguised as a boy actor, Shakespeare demonstrates how a man should kiss, and then receives his lesson from her. It’s not as kinky as the “boy playing a girl disguised as a boy” of Twelfth Night’s Viola, but there’s a frisson here that the actors carry into their other liaisons. With the male ensemble subtly used in female roles, the play had a rippling gender fluidity.
The big personalities of Shakespeare’s male peers provided many of the comic highlights. Luke Arnold’s Marlowe is a prowling omnivore, spinning off plot details with a breezy genius that feeds Shakespeare’s relatable insecurity. Chris Ryan as Ned Alleyn and Aaron Tsindos as Richard Burbage are wonderfully bombastic as the famous actors of their day. Alleyn’s stage death in particular is a joy, a commando roll dive into a wet gurgle.
With a revolving stage, towers that swivel into the scene and backdrops that lurch into infinity, this felt like a lavish pop-up book of the Elizabethan world. The sword fights in the second half blur together in a mess of action, but the climactic premiere of Romeo and Juliet is a worthy and emotional finale.
This production doesn’t have the famous names of the film, but has great performances, and is leaner and less sentimental. With the music constantly reminding us that “youth’s a stuff will not endure” there is a gentle sadness, but it accents the rollicking fun.
Shakespeare in Love is an overflowing treasury of comic gems: clever, romantic, and thoroughly entertaining.