SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE AT THE ARTS THEATRE
The Arts Theatre until 10th November
Is this play a super-witty send up of all things Elizabethan? Or an insider’s account of life in the theatre? Or even a time travel back to the world of 16th century stagecraft and its bold swashbuckling actors? Shakespeare in Love is a daring rom-com that casts young Will (here an earnest impetuous go-getter played by Pierro Niel-Mee) and the adorably stylish Kit Marlowe (a talented literary big-hitter played by super stylish Edmund Kingsley) as brothers-in- drama, fighting their way through a tough world – and into a tragic ending for one, and a desperately sad one for the other.
An inventive story penned by Tom Stoppard has knowing quips at every turn of the script but the play does ask some keen questions. If Christopher Marlowe hadn’t died so young, stabbed through the eye in a tavern fight in Deptford, would William Shakespeare have found the space to become who he was? Whatever the hypotheticals, this is a great story told at a rollicking pace. Half way through the action, it becomes clear as daylight that this play is not so much about the personalities entertaining as they are (apparently Anne Hathaway wasn’t a harridan with a cottage Shakespeare hated ) or about history ( did Marlowe and Shakespeare even actually meet?) but about the theatre itself , its fabulous vitality and its charm. The production takes us nearer to what theatre life was really like.
Young Shakespeare, in hock to a pair of rival demanding managers has run clean out of ideas. Only Marlowe can help him as he casts about for the end of a line “ Shall I compare thee to a er . . mummers’ play? “ and the entire cast wait breathlessly for his Muse to return and their own livelihoods take an upswing. But debts and agents are pressing hard and he begins on a follow up to his début ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ with an action comedy based around pirates – and a dog (‘The Queen loves a dog in a play’) . When inspiration fails and the script is only two pages long there is chaos on stage - brilliantly done by the cast ensemble. Near despair, Will auditions a young actor with real talent among the list of no-hopers lining up for parts, a player who speaks the playwright’s lines with sincerity. She is secretly Viola de Lesseps , a young lady of means. Imogen Daines excels as a young woman, trapped in a loveless engagement to marry a heartless aristocrat. She falls in love with theatre and then Shakespeare in short order. In the film she was a winsome and word -perfect Gwyneth Paltrow- the stage Viola is so much more convincing , committed and tragic .
Delightful as the film was (who can forget those closing moments on Holkham Beach as Viola sets forth for another world?) the play is so much more energetic, vital, more alive. This is a real adventure back into the past to the struggle and the artistry, the dangerous shenanigans between actor managers and the sublime poetry of the plays. The whole thing is alive with humour. One moment Ian Hughes’ Henslowe is bellowing “Shut it!” at his assembled players as crudely as any East end publican at throwing out time, the next the script gives us the magic of Romeo and Juliet, which emerges from the love and longing of Will’s encounter with Viola, in all its numinous wonderful language.
The Play is the thing. Whether it is the boatman rowing the passionate lovers back to her riverside home “I had that Christopher Marlow in the back of my boat” with such brilliantly observed oarsmanship, the artifice is a work of theatre in itself. As is the fighting, unrealistic craft echoing the theatrical pretence of hundreds of years of stage combat. It feels so real.The roaring boys are really raucous, the lovers palpably in love. No film however subtle can bring its audience to a living working creation of theatre as - theatre.
And in its very artificial feel, the play is strangely enough, ten times more convincing than the perfection of the photographic version.