Tuesday, January 27, 2015

'Shakespeare in Love' at the Noël Coward Theatre, 26th January 2015

"Shall I compare thee to a... autumn afternoon... to a... spring morning.. to a s.... something!" The sight of William Shakespeare scratching fruitlessly away, frustrated that he can't conjure forth magic is a compelling one. Everybody knows Shakespeare's works, but the man himself? He remains elusive, known to us only through a handful of letters, contemporaneous accounts and legal documents. Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the 1997 Oscar-winning film, aims to reveal what was going on behind the legend.

Here we have a young, not yet firmly established, Will Shakespeare (Orlando James) jockeying for position in the world of Elizabethan theatre. With a couple of minor successes under his belt he's on the up and up, yet still labouring in the shadow of Kit Marlow (Edward Franklin). Positioned at the centre of a morass of competing creditors, egotistical actors and hungry audiences, the pressure is on for a hit. Fortunately he's cooking up a humdinger: 'Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter' (though the title could use some work).

He'd be making great gains, if it weren't for crippling writer's block. The cure turns out to be the fragrant Viola De Lesseps (Eve Ponsonby). She's a lover of theatre and poetry trapped in the bondage of Tudor aristocracy. Arranged to be married to a titled man and shipped over to a Virginia plantation she exists in a state of frustrated misery. She lifts her spirits with a spot of cross-dressing, disguising herself as 'Thomas Kent' and auditioning for the role of Romeo. What follows is a whirlwind of mistaken identities, theatrical intrigue, slapstick comedy and hot n' heavy sexual passion - Tudor style!

The idea of a young Shakespeare only able to write his most famous plays because he was essentially living one is dramatically seductive; allowing for a tonne of literary allusions and metafictional elements. Large chunks of the play rely on the audience picking up on references to the plays. These range from the clever; Shakespeare exclaiming "O Brave New World!" when he uncovers Viola's drag act, to the clunky, a dog is chased off stage to shouts of "Out, out damned Spot!" (conjuring more groans than laughs).

With the original script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (now rejigged by Lee Hall), the play never lets up with the Elizabethan theatre references . These gags are one of the main pillars of the play; the references allowing the audience to feel smart. Though the constant knowing winks flirt with obnoxiousness we stay on just the right side of charming. It's a close call, lurking in the background there's the suspicion that Shakespeare in Love is a hollow plastic facsimile of literature - for those who'd like to experience culture without exercising their mind.

Fortunately the show is so bright n' breezy and the cast so effortlessly charming that it's easy to quash that fear. From the moment the curtain rises the show is suffused with a whipcrack energy. The wooden set, echoing Elizabethan theatres, features two large balconies above the stage. These constantly teem with life, performers gazing down at the principals below, people clatter up and down the stairs and clamber over each other's shoulders.

This hive of activity, often featuring a live band playing the score, is deeply satisfying to watch - quoting the aesthetics of Shakespearian theatre with a generous sprinkling of modern playfulness. Buoying this up are a tremendous cast; everyone from the principals to the supporting players dialled into precisely the same wavelength, bouncing off each other like a giant theatrical pinball machine. Particular accolades go to Paul Brennan's Fennyman, who adorably travels from ganglord torturer to fanboy thesp - giddy with excitement about getting to play the apothecary. Peter Moreton's enormous ham Burbage also impresses, though a part this bombastic is a gift to any actor. There is also a dog, which is received with rapturous applause at every appearance. The dog is fine, but its arrival too easily melts the audience's hearts - it feels like cheating!

Everyone here is very talented, but this show lies or dies in the romantic comedy partnership of Orlando James and Eve Ponsonby. James is very good as Will, perfectly conveying the young Shakespeare as a dissolute "bankside poet". There's an arty bohemian hunkiness to the way he dances across the stage in glee when caught up in love or hurling himself to the floor in melodramatic misery. But it's in the magnificent Eve Ponsonby that the show truly finds its soul, finding a tightly coiled spring of sexuality underneath the Viola's restrictive bustles and petticoats and unleashing it with a triumphant *SPROING!* At all times she's an absolute pleasure to watch, imbuing what could easily be some textbook tomboy with brains, agency and attractive, gutsy determination.

Shakespeare in Love is not an important play - it has absolutely nothing to say about the state of the world, zero political positioning and no theatrical innovation. As an experience it's sweet and fluffy as a meringue, so gossamer light that it could blow away in a mild breeze. This isn't going to shake up the West End, but it's very good at being funny, charming and romantic. A minor, slightly forgettable, triumph, but a triumph nonetheless.

Shakespeare in Love is at the Noël Coward Theatre until April 18th. Tickets here.

Huge thanks to the wonderful Rebecca of OfficialTheatre.com for the ticket!

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