REVIEW: Shakespeare In Love - Noel Coward Theatre

I was so excited to see this play, but even then I had my misgivings: I really like the film, it's a guilty pleasure of mine, so would the play be like the film? If it was how would it transfer onto the stage, and if it wasn't how would I react? Would I bring a preconceived notion of how things should or shouldn't be? Would I like the necessary changes or would I have preferred to just curl up at home with a cup of tea and watch the movie?

It's difficult, when something is so well known, to make it new and fresh, and Shakespeare In Love is an Oscar-winning, popular movie. I'd like to point out straight away that we didn't have the best seats so our view was somewhat restricted at times and that could have affected my review.

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First off: the set was brilliant. Elements of it moved, rose up, swept back or came forward; lights came down from the flies and trap doors appeared. It was beautifully authentic looking, with low rails and multiple levels, steps, staircases and little balconies, meaning the action could take place over several planes. Many of the cast spent much of the performance scattered throughout the various levels of the set, observing the action, which created a lovely sense of the entire production being 'a show' There was never a moment that the stage wasn't occupied, and the cast themselves brought on or removed benches, tables, props, etc. as scenes changed which was a lovely touch meaning the flow of the action never stopped.

This was carried through by the musicians being present on stage and using period instruments: the male vocalist had the most hauntingly beautiful voice, and I loved the harmonies in the piece at the opening of Act Two.

The use of the set was ingenious during the final scenes as the action moved between 'backstage' and 'on stage', and a touching moment was created as the stuttering Wabash (played by Ncuti Gatwa) took his steps forward for the 'Prologue' of 'Romeo and Juliet'.

I enjoyed the performances of Orlando James as William Shakespeare, and Edward Franklin as Christopher Marlowe; there was a lovely sense of brotherhood and camaraderie in their relationship and the scene at Viola's balcony was wonderfully witty, with a wink and a nod to the conspiracy theory that Shakespeare didn't necessarily write his own material. There were some lovely ensemble moments that made me laugh out loud; such as the moment during 'rehearsals' when Shakespeare and Sam (Gregg Lowe) are demonstrating how Romeo and Juliet ought to kiss.

Many of the lines from the film appeared during the production, and there were many references to other works by Shakespeare (a dog called 'Spot' being told to 'Get Out! Out! Damned Spot.') which were nicely placed and brought the smug, knowing laughs from the self-supposed scholars in the audience. But it keeps them happy I suppose.

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However. I felt like they 'played the jokes' too much. The acting crossed over into 'hammy' at times - I understand in the role of Burbage (played by Peter Moreton) this might have been a character choice, but it often felt like I was watching a pantomime as many of the characters seemed to be over-acting constantly. The first scene with Viola De Lesseps (Eve Ponsonby) was actually quite uncomfortable for me to watch as she writhed around the stage bemoaning her inability to join a company of players by thrusting, beating her breast multiple times, jumping on the bed and growling; obviously showing 'passion' in theatre dictates 'throwing oneself around and shouting'. It meant that I didn't warm to the character and therefore didn't particularly care about her story.

I never forgot that I was watching a play. I never felt like the actors 'became' their characters (with the possible exception of Edward Franklin who played a mischievous and knowing Marlowe) and therefore there was no change of tone during the sequences 'on-stage'. Even when Shakespeare learns of Marlowe's death, I didn't really believe his passion. During several sequences between Shakespeare and Viola I actually had a flick through my programme, reading about the interesting background to the play and the use of music and dance during the production.

Programme Notes

When I see a good production, I forget that I'm watching a play. I want to be transported into that world and feel that I am watching real people in real situations. As I said at the start, maybe I brought my personal opinions of the film into the theatre; Gwyneth Paltrow's beautifully understated Viola; Martin Clunes' bombastic Burbage, etc.  But I didn't feel how I wanted to feel; I wanted to cry when Viola/Juliet dies, and I didn't. I kind of didn't care.

I'm glad I've seen it, I did enjoy much, if not all, of it, but I doubt I'd see it again... Maybe, if I had better seats. Despite this, it was a strong production; there was love, life, laughs, a jig at the end and a bit with a dog. As as Henslowe (Neal Barry) stated - that's what the audience want!

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