In 1998, Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love screenplay set the silver screen alight, secured Gwyneth Paltrow her infamous teary Oscar speech and brought a bit of Shakespeare, via the local multiplex, to the masses, where – some might say – he truly belonged.
Now a new adaptation is reuniting Shakespeare with his theatrical roots at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West-End. The stage is set as the famous Globe Theatre. Much like its sixteenth century counterpart, this plain design is curiously biddable and can be imagined into the balcony exterior of a grand Elizabethan House at a moment’s notice.
Though the 19th century Rococo inspired interiors of the Noël Coward are a world away from the London that Shakespeare in Love depicts, there is something about the curved intimacy of the place that adds to the enchantment of a theatre adaptation. The image of Shakespeare sitting at his desk with his quill, the stage lights dimmed and a single candle burning brightly in the darkness is iconic.
Scriptwriter, Lee Hall, lifts much of the dialogue from the Tom Stoppard/Marc Norman original. But in many ways that doesn’t matter, because this is a drastically different production. The words are familiar but the delivery is not. Viola de Lesseps, played angelically and to Academy acclaim by Paltrow, is now embodied by the hoary voiced, petite Lucy Briggs-Owen. Briggs Owen is no willowy sylph, but has garnered rave reviews for her Viola. The only similarity to Paltrow, is that she is the gravitational centre of this production and the fiery focus of Shakespeare’s ardent affection.
Of course the title role is a tough one and Tom Bateman does his best. He brings much more of a boyish charm to ‘Will’ than Joseph Fiennes, but lacks the brooding sensibility Fiennes had when delivering the bard’s best lines. Contrastingly David Oakes as Kit Marlowe has mastered the playwright’s depth and acerbic wit, teasing out hearty laughter and true sorrow in a plumped up version of a role that Rupert Everett made thoroughly unremarkable. Paul Chahidi is another fantastic addition to the cast as Henslowe. And Barney the dog may very well be London’s best canine thesp as Spot.
Perhaps more so than the film, this Shakespeare in Love is a comedy about youth and infatuation. That’s not to say that the film isn’t funny – it is. But the pivotal scenes of pathos seem lighter, almost underplayed, on the stage. This may have something to do with the absence of Stephen Warbeck’s Oscar winning score, which never fails to stir emotion at exactly the right moment in the film. But if you are a fan of the original, or just in the mood for some cosy British comedy then this retelling is a cheery night of fun and laughter.