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Sunday, 5 June 2016

In Love with Shakespeare in Love

Luke Humphrey, centre, as Will Shakespeare
surrounded by company members. Photo by David Hou.
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall
by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions and Sonia Friedman Productions
Directed by Declan Donnellan
Designed by Nick Ormerod, Kevin Fraser(lighting) and Peter McBoyle (sound)
Featuring Luke Humphrey, Shannon Taylor

As a reviewer it is a pleasure when a production becomes so enjoyable it is not necessary to take notes. Such is the case with the North American premiere of Shakespeare in Love which opened last night at the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre.

Those who have seen the Oscar-winning film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, know the story; a young William Shakespeare is facing a bad case of writer's block when along comes a young, theatre and poetry-obsessed noblewoman, Viola de Lesseps. Viola disguises herself as a boy to audition for the males-only troupe, and Will discovers his new muse. Alas and alack, Viola is married off to a boorish nobleman and Shakespeare continues to write in her memory.

That's the story in a nutshell but filling out the plot are a whole lot of theatrical and bedroom hijinks starring an immense cast of characters; both hijinks and characters will no doubt seem familiar to those with even a basic knowledge of the Shakespeare canon. Viola has a nurse who becomes immortalized as Juliet's nurse; Chancellor Tilney bears a striking resemblance to Malvolio, and the writers cleverly clip soundbytes from Shakespeare's real plays for dialogue, situational comedy and plot development.

Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare
and Stephen Ouimette as Henslowe.
Photo by David Hou
The cast (more than 20 of them if you count the dog) does a fine job of keeping plot and dialogue crisp, funny and flowing, with much scene-chewing from the entire cast; this is perfectly appropriate in a romantic play which at times approaches farce (Michael Frayn's Noises Off! comes to mind). It is hard to say which actor pulls off the over-acting the best, although arguably Tom McCamus has the best lines as Fennyman, and Sarah Orenstein the largest presence as Queen Elizabeth.

The two leads come the closest to toning down the melodrama; both Luke Humphrey (Will Shakespeare) and Shannon Taylor (Viola) play their parts with an enthusiasm bordering on euphoria but it seems natural for them to do so - their characters are in the throes of a passionate, short-lived love-affair, after all.

Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps.
Photo by David Hou.
All that being said, it must be pointed out that this show is backed by Disney. Yes, that Disney, and it is quite obvious that the notorious Disney product-control is in full swing, as the set, costumes, wigs, are identical to the show that opened in the West End of London in 2014-15. That is not altogether surprising, except that it appears that even the actors' movements and delivery are micro-managed, which leads one to wonder how much personality and discovery the actors were allowed in rehearsals, how much of their craft they were allowed to practice. They are the best of the best - one hopes the performances we see in this show are in some way a tribute to their profession. Indeed, it would be ironic if the Stratford actors had less latitude than those of Shakespeare's troupe they portray.

This is the question of a theatre-geek, of course, and does nothing to diminish Ms. Taylor's radiance as Viola or Stephen Ouimette's comical timing as the nervous Henshawe. Most audience members who see this show will not be disappointed in the least - it is funny, well-built (really, that set is marvellous), romantic, and a true love-letter to Shakespeare and theatre. In fact, this theatre-geek is likely to see it again, just for the fun of it.

Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps and Luke Humphrey as
Will Shakespeare. Photo by David Hou.
Shakespeare in Love continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 16; future forecast for this crowd-pleaser predicts an extension in Stratford with the possibility of a transfer to New York.

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