Shakespeare In Love is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Mon 12 to Sat 17 Nov) and a more obvious production to bring to the stage from its original film source is hard to find in recent years.
“Shakespeare in Love” was a huge success when it was released as a film in 1998 starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, and this stage production adapted by Lee Hall and based on the original screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard has produced not only that rare thing of a cross-over from film to stage that actually works, but one that stands in its own right as work for theatre.
Shakespeare’s plays need no introduction here and they are so well known that even people who think they do not know any lines from them know at least a few (even if altered a little), and that familiarity of the subject matter means that many people in the audience can share at some level in the many plays of Shakespeare “in jokes” in this cleverly written script. Well known lines like “Out, damned spot" and “Is this a dagger” brought much laughter from the audience with their use in this story.
“Shakespeare in Love” somehow manages to keep so many of the elements in it that we are all used to in the original works – comedy, humour, mistaken identity, love and tragedy, and all of these elements are handled so well by our cast tonight. Cleverly though, this story also involves some of the real people whom Shakespeare would have known during his life, and other figures who he would have been aware of. We also start our story with the ingenious idea that Will Shakespeare has a severe case of writer’s block and is getting nowhere trying to find the words for his new play –“Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter”. Of course, part of the subtle way this story interacts with us as an audience is that we know so many of the words that he is struggling in vain to find.
This story though is one that is always going to revolve around the two principal leads – William Shakespeare (Pierro Niel-Mee) and Viola de Lesseps (Imogen Daines). So much of this story, double identity, comedy, and of course our love story depend on these two characters being believable and a genuine connection between them, and Pierro Niel-Mee and Imogen Daines are a very good partnership here who manage not only to bring comedy and tenderness to their roles, but make us as an audience believe in them both enough to care about them as people. All of this of course so often happens in that classic Shakespeare format of a play within a play.
Edmund Kingsley as fellow playwright Kit Marlowe gets to have some obvious fun here with his larger than life character who so often is the prompt to Shakespeare with lines that we know so well to help him though his writer’s block. There is a lot of humour in this production and the cast are so obviously enjoying the chance to explore the possibilities here in full, with Rob Edwards (Fennyman), Geraldine Alexander (the Queen), Bill Ward (Wessex), Ian Hughes (Henslowe), Giles Taylor (Tilney and De Lesseps), Edward Harrison (Burbage) and Philip Labey (Sam) not only keeping everything alive and fresh for the whole two acts, but also giving us an insight into the world of Elizabethan theatre. In this world, women are not banned by law from appearing on stage, but it is a big social no – something simply not done - and this story here has a lot of fun with mixing the traditionally split roles. A world of no copyright on written work and one where once completed works belong to the actors (often their specific lines) and not the playwright might also seem an odd one to us now.
There are some nice touches in this production and music by Paddy Cunneen played live throughout the performance gave an extra layer to this work. It was also nice to see the use of a revolving stage and designer Max Jones used this to full effect with a simple staircase set that allowed for many different scenes in a limited space. The revolving stage would have worked far better for me though if its use had been restricted a little more as over-use of the option made the stage at times look a little bit like the opening credits of “The Magic Roundabout”. At other times, it was becoming an obstruction to clear sight lines on stage from the circle of the theatre, and from my viewpoint, completely obscured the entrance of The Queen in Act 1. There was also a moment in Act 2 where the revolving stage took on more of a revolving door aspect as actors tried to time just the right moment to step onto it and exit it.
Having said all of that about our “merry go round” stage, this production still did exactly what any theatre production should do for a comedy – entertained its audience from start to finish and let them leave the show with smiles on their faces.
Review by Tom King