We’re seeing more and more screenplays being turned into stage adaptations these days, but Shakespeare In Love has a stronger claim than most to be afforded such treatment. Originally penned by Marc Norman and theatrical legend Tom Stoppard, it won seven Oscars in 1998 (one of them for Judy Dench, who was onscreen for all of six minutes). It also made the careers of Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. This adaptation by Lee Hall was first produced in the West End and has a rumbustious musical score by Paddy Cuneen thrown in for good measure.
Set in the year 1564, we first encounter Will Shakespeare (Pierro Nel-Mee) at the Rose Theatre. He’s mostly a jobbing actor, only recently embarked on his career as a playwright and struggling to create his latest commission – a comedy escapade entailed Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. It doesn’t help that his friend, Kit Marlowe (Edmund Kingsley), is currently enjoying stellar success as a writer, seemingly able to pluck words from the air with a minimum of effort. He often finds himself acting as Will’s muse.
Meanwhile, Viola de Lesseps (Imogen Daines), a noblewoman destined for an arranged marriage with the contemptible Lord Wessex (Bill Ward), dreams of a career on the stage at a time when women never get to tread the boards and where their roles are generally played by willowy young men in drag. When she hears that open auditions are being held for the new Shakespeare play, she disguises herself as a young chap and goes along to give it her best shot. As it happens, Viola is a huge fan of Will’s work and he, in turn, is so impressed by the way she reads his lines, he impulsively casts her as his Romeo. As their working relationship develops and he begins to suspect that this young actor is not exactly what ‘he’ appears to be, the play becomes less the comic romp that Will’s patrons have envisaged and more the romantic tragedy that audiences have come to know. That said, Shakespeare in Love is full of delicious humour with plenty of knowing nods and winks to many of Shakespeare’s other works, especially Twelfth Night.
A sizeable ensemble cast work their doublets and hoses off to keep the action bubbling away while an ingenious revolving stage provides a whole variety of locations, most effectively when it contrives to offer both a backstage and a front-of-house look at the same scenes. Cuneen’s music regularly supplies a series of jaunty, hand-clapping interludes and everything scampers along at such a sprightly pace there’s never time to pause and reflect on how unlikely the story is – but then, isn’t that the very essence of Shakespeare in the first place?
This is a delicious treat for Shakespeare fans and lovers of comedy alike, an ingenious and jocund adaptation that provides a most satisfying night at the theatre.