Thursday 17 July 2014

Shakespeare In Love @ The Noel Coward Theatre

A new play, based on an Oscar winning film that celebrates the works of Shakespeare, produced by Disney.  It’s a match made in theatrical heaven, right?

Following the same fictional narrative as the film, Shakespeare In Love presents a young Will (the handsome Tom Bateman) suffering from writers block – that is, until he meets his muse in the form of noblewoman Viola De Lesseps (the amusing Lucy Briggs-Owen).  Together they strike up a forbidden romance that forms the backbone to arguably his best known work, Romeo and Juliet.

As one character notes during a rehearsal scene for the play (within the play), “this is not just entertainment, it’s art”.  In fact, for Shakespeare In Love, the opposite is true.  As you’d expect from Disney, this is light-hearted fluff that’s pure entertainment with little depth.  The script is the epitome of trite, scraping the surface of Shakespeare’s oeuvre for countless references and direct quotes that result only in embarrassed groans from the audience.  Much of the play’s humour stems from this snigger-worthy irony: poking fun at Shakespeare is simply too easy.  And like in the film, the Marlovian theory that Christopher Marlowe assisted Shakespeare is perhaps hard to swallow.

It’s not helped by a cast that insist on hammy over-acting, as if ridiculing the RSC school of drama.  With all the silliness of the script the play often descends into pantomime, with cartoonish action, little depth of emotion and a lot of cross dressing.  This is a play where the second act awkwardly opens to the sound of bawdy sex noises; a play where the most celebrated on-stage actor is a dog.  The actual Shakespeare scenes are well acted, which makes you wish the cast would just put on one of his classics instead.

This, however, is the cynic’s view.  If you can embrace the camp, then Shakespeare In Love becomes a highly enjoyable piece of feel-good fluff.  The constant references do offer some clever nods and witticisms, weaving a simple tale that draws in the best of the Bard’s work.  This is a celebration of his writing, with all the tropes and conventions we’ve come to admire – there’s even a song and dance at the end.  The acting might be over the top, but the cast provide plenty of laughs whether from Anna Carteret’s stern yet underused Queen Elizabeth, Doug Rao’s foppish Ned Alleyn, or Paul Chahidi’s bumbling Henslowe.  There are also plenty of period touches, from the set design that replicates the Rose Theatre and transports us from backstage to onstage action, to the onstage musicians that provide suitably courtly music, and dance captain Sandy Murray jigging his away across the stage to set various props.  The play might be mindless, but it’s incredibly easy to sit back and let it all wash over you like a big blockbuster theatrical hug, making up for its lack of affectation with amusement and charm.

Oh, and did I mention there’s a dog?


Watch: Shakespeare In Love runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 25th October.

A massive thank you to the team at Official Theatre for the ticket, visit their site here.