I love William Shakespeare. It’s crazy that 403 years after his death, we’re still so captivated by his stories. In 1998, a movie took a fictional take on his life titled “Shakespeare In Love”. Although the film isn’t exactly a Shakespeare piece, it is inspired by his work, telling the tale of how the celebrated playwright was inspired to create “Romeo & Juliet”. With its clever use of Shakespeare quotes and reference, incredible costumes and a talented cast, the film went on to win seven Academy Awards including the gong for Best Picture. It took 16 years later for a theatre adaptation to grace the West End stage, and an additional 5 years after that for the play to come here to Melbourne for its Australian debut. As a film critic and theatre enthusiast, I was both curious and keen to see the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare In Love.
MTC’s production of Shakespeare In Love is a lot lighter and sillier in comparison to the film, but in a good way. We follow young Will Shakespeare who is struggling both romantically and creatively, struck with writer’s block and no muse to inspire him, Shakespeare played by Michael Wahr appears more so like an aimless lost boy than a confident playwright.
Will is commissioned to write a play yet is constantly staring at blank pages and unfinished sonnets. It is only when Will meets Viola De Lesseps played by Claire van der Boom, does he begin to rekindle his artistic spark with Viola being both his muse and the male lead actor of new play, “Romeo and the Pirate’s Daughter, Ethel”. Set in a time where women were sold off in marriage, were forbidden to grace the stage and could rarely afford dreams, Viola cross-dresses under alias ‘Thomas Kent’ to be an actor in Shakespeare’s play. It is only when Will and Viola meet, does passion, drama and chaos then ensue.
I enjoyed Michael Wahr’s portrayal of Will as a lost young man that finds his creative feet again. While the film focuses more on the romantic relationship between Will and Viola, I felt that the theatre production was more about the brotherhood and struggles between his theatre compatriots, and Will’s frustrations with his friend Kit Marlow’s work being recognised over his own.
In comparison to the film, Will’s relationship with Kit is a lot closer on-stage, appearing more as best friends than rivals. In one amusing scene, Marlow played by Luke Arnold even helps assist Shakespeare woo his woman. I really liked this change and found it refreshing that Will had companionship in his fellow playwright.
Daniel Frederiksen is complete diva in his spoilt, impatient, rude and arrogant take on Lord Wessex. You want to hate his character, but only because Frederiksen is so good in the role. I also thoroughly enjoyed Adam Murphy as ‘the money’ Fennyman, although admittedly, I was a bit sad when his part in Shakespeare’s play wasn’t actually part of the show. And while I did enjoy Claire van der Boom’s take on tom-boy Viola De Lesseps, going back and forth between being herself and ‘Thomas Kent’, the real treat would be Deidre Rubenstein’s duality, going from ‘the help’ to ‘the queen’. I could not stop smiling whenever she was on stage.
Whether it be chasing a dog that’s running away with a script or sword fighting the competition, MTC’s Shakespeare In Love has a solid talented cast that genuinely seem to be having fun while on stage, and in a way that would make audiences jealous. Unlike the multi award-winning film, the stage adaptation is not a love letter to the celebrated playwright, but a love letter to the theatre, staying true to how theatre used to be, right down to the men dolled-up and looking pretty in lavish ball gowns. The show is neither better, nor worse than the film, but more so a companion piece that really makes the story its own. If you want to see a light-hearted, silly and fun piece of theatre whilst also feeling like you’ve stepped back in time, then MTC’s Shakespeare In Love is the one for you.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare In Love is currently playing at the Playhouse in Arts Centre Melbourne until August 17th 2019. For more information and ticketing visit: https://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/season-2019/shakespeare-in-love/
Photography by Jeff Busby.