Films brought to the stage are often maligned, but Shakespeare in Love, which opened this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, should make all playgoers happy. Theatre power couple Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, world renowned for their Cheek by Jowl Company, make it a hot ticket. Skillfully adapted by Lee Hall, from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s Oscar winning 1998 hit, this is a clever crowd pleaser it’s easy to recommend.
Hall wisely retains much of the original script. All the jokes created by a modern eye on the imagined creation of Romeo and Juliet are as funny as ever. The romance is preserved and the story’s second love affair – with the theatre – is expanded. The ensemble engender an intimate complicity as they remain on stage to interact with the young playwright Will during his hopeless love affair with the aristocratic Viola De Lesseps.
With the movie in our minds the performers have a lot of live up to – it was a film with no shortage of stars. The cast acquit themselves well, with David Oakes benefiting most from a beefed up role as Christopher Marlowe. Director Donnellan uses the many small roles to focus attention on the lovers – showing their differences in rank and contrasting overblown acting with their sincerity as the romance mirrors and molds that of the fictional Romeo and Juliet.
In the star roles Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen give exciting performances. Bateman has the looks for a leading man and gives Will a Byronic feel that he builds well. Briggs-Owen is full of ambition, keen to get the laughs and conveying a spirit that makes you fall in love with her character. Viola is the star and her desire to become an actor is the motivation that is inspirational.
Donnellan marshals Shakespeare in Love with efficiency and Ormerod’s set is impressive. Could the play have been more adventurous? Probably. The finest addition is the music from Paddy Cunneen that has a boldly crafted authentic feel. But the production sensibly decides to please those who loved the film and here it’s an unqualified success. There’s even a dog that almost steals the show – sure proof those in charge know what people want: love, and a bit with a dog.
Until 25 October 2014
Photos by Johan Persson
Written 23 July 2014 for The London Magazine