Saturday, August 24, 2019

Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love, based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard; adapted for the stage by Lee Hall; music by Paddy Cunneen.  Melbourne Theatre Company production at Canberra Theatre Centre August 22-32, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone.

Michael Wahr as the musing Will Shakespeare
Photo: Limelight

THE set design for Shakespeare in Love on stage is nothing less than magnificent, and the deliberately coarse acting is often Laugh Out Loud.  But LoL is not enough to sustain a full-length RomCom – too long, in fact – unless the romance is believable.  The director has done their best and the lead actors are very good, but this script fails at its heart.

Are we expected to simply find a bumbling ‘rude mechanicals’ version of London theatre in Shakespeare’s day funny?  In this view Will appears as Peter Quince, and there are several Bottoms.  But unlike in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s no depth in the lovers' relationship.  The writer of this script is certainly not Shakespeare.

A 'rehearsal' scene
Photo: MTC
Are we supposed to take the play as a serious condemnation of the apocryphal state of women, not only in the past but still today?  Queen Elizabeth I in this script, by forgiving Viola for performing on stage, and by performing herself as an absolute monarch, could be seen as a feminist symbol.

In real history, of course, Queen Elizabeth made Proclamations against 'excess of apparel' and gave actors (all male) special licence to wear clothes, in specified colours, to represent characters who were of a different class from that of the actor in real life.  Shakespeare in Love’s Viola would not have been forgiven.

But, as in Twelfth Night’s treatment of Malvolio, Shakespeare in Love would have to take us beyond the laughter into a deeper level of social criticism.  We would need to feel the tragedy of this Viola’s realising that she will never perform again, and must leave Will to marry the awful Wessex.  But her acceptance of such a fate for herself, and the mere quoting back to Will how his writing will make true love last forever, is just soppy romanticism.  There is just a touch in a throwaway line earlier in the play, when Shakespeare says, of course, a comedy has to have a happy ending.  But the irony of the tragic ending for this Viola, because she is a woman, barely peeks through the LoL.

Queen Elizabeth and her Court

Photos: Jeff Busby

Another approach might have been to turn the Shakespeare in Love idea into a satire.  The beginning and the end, where Shakespeare is searching for the right words for ‘Shall I Compare Thee…’ could have gone this way, perhaps.  And Daisy the Dog made me wonder.

But satire has a central component of criticism; anathema for a romcom needing a happy ending.

So apart from thoroughly enjoying the wonderful sets and their imaginative changes, and appreciating the whole team of actors for keeping it all moving, I found the play needs re-writing to give us more satisfying theatre.