It’s hard to figure out how to properly review a play that’s about a movie that’s about a play. On one hand, well, Romeo and Juliet, you’re probably familiar with that; God knows several movies have been done on the theme (if not so much on the play) and God knows there have been spin-offs in other areas as well. But what is Shakespeare in Love (“the play”), really? Should the acting be judged by the standards I’d hold for Shakespeare? Or should I really be looking at it as an (urgh) adaptation of a movie and thus hold it to the much lower standards of a thrice removed adaptation based upon a blandly populist form of entertainment that, to be honest, is what this play, at its heart, is: simply an attempt to shake some shekels out of the indiscriminate theater goer?
But, to my great surprise, the commercial enterprise that is Shakespeare In Love (“the play”) has actually succeeded in creating a very enjoyable play. I’m not talking great art here: the loose treatment of history and historical ways of speaking is all too painfully on display. But honestly, if you are choosing to see this play, you still have the option of seeing Shakespeare fifteen more times in any given month (not just at the Globe but at the other 5 theaters currently doing Richard II, Richard III, Midsummer, etc.), and of seeing shows that put their high historical research front and center (RSC’s Hilary Mantel double header, yo) and, you know what? I’ve had enough Shakespeare for this entire year, and even Wolf Hall had dialogue that I’m sure was a far cry from Tudor England reality.
The plot varies not at all from the movie, as I recall (I saw it when it was new), and it is as follows: Shakespeare has writer’s block (possibly because of his loveless marriage); a young noblewoman who loves his works (she’s seen them performed for the Queen) decides to sneak into an audition as a man; as she’s a total Shakespeare fan she of course gets ;the job; Shakespeare falls in love with her (as a woman); suddenly he can write again (“the quill is full of ink” har har); the various tribulations they experience become, bit by bit, the major scenes of Romeo and Juliet – the balcony, the morning after, the utter heartbreak at separation.
In some ways, when it comes down to it, Shakespeare in Love is a play meant for Shakespeare fandom – people who know his works well enough to get all of the little throwaway lines from the non-R&J plays that are in this one and who find a storyline that is an imagining of how R&J came to be something worth two hundred minutes and fifty quid. Once I let go of “what things were REALLY like in those days” (no noblewoman woman would really think of sneaking off to be an actress) I realized I had a play that played with Shakespeare and his tropes – switched genders, hidden identities, thwarted love – in all sorts of fun ways. And it didn’t feel like a watered down movie – it was strongly theatrical, with a very basic set that could be a playhouse, the interior of a noble house, a bar, a bedchamber, et cetera but which also allowed us to believe we were at a fireworks viewing or floating down the Thames without the necessity of flying in a helicopter to help us suspend our disbelief.
This is all helped, of course, by the genuinely enthusiastic (and in no way amateurish) performances of our leads – both as themselves and when they perform Romeo and Juliet – and the strong supporting cast, who might be hamming it up but, well, I give them some leeway as with twenty actors you’ve got to put a lot of energy out there to shine. In fact, the general levels of “on” ness of the cast makes me think that what I was seeing was the kinds of performances that actors give when they feel really confident in their material and in the success of the show. They needed to play to the balconies because, well, the whole damned house was full, and is likely to be full for the extent of the run. And, as an early music buff, I’d like to applaud the music director for giving us both correct period instruments and some lovely countertenor singing, which I found nicely enhanced the mood (and which I realize could have been skipped with most people never knowing the difference – but it was well done and seemed like a little gift amongst all of the period incorrect dialogue).
So, burn out as I am, I found myself quite surprised at how much I enjoyed Shakespeare in Love, both as someone whose too, too solid heart needed melting and as a person who does, honestly, enjoy a good night’s entertainment – this was a fine show and many thanks to Official London Theatre for sponsoring this blogger’s attendance.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. It is booking through October 25th.)