Robert Tanitch reviews Shakespeare in Love at Noel Coward Theatre
What everybody will want to know is whether the stage version is as good as the John Madden film and whether Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen are as good as Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow were as the lovers.
The surprise is that nobody has adapted Shakespeare in Love for the stage before. It is such a theatrical piece. Actors love it. There are theatrical jokes and witty anachronisms galore. With its large cast, you would think it would be on at the National, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Young Vic; instead, surprise, surprise, it’s in a West End theatre.
Lee Hall’s adaptation, brilliantly staged by Declan Donellan and his designer Nick Ormerod, is acted with such warmth and affection by the whole company that its success is, surely, assured and a transfer to Broadway must be on the cards.
The special quality of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay was the clever construction which allowed it to slip in and out of Romeo and Juliet with ease. Theatregoers who know their Shakespeare will have a ball; but those who have never seen Shakespeare’s play will have a great time too. It amuses. It touches the heart. And there is a dog! What more could an audience want?
The romantic story line is very accessible. Shakespeare (Tom Bateman, a charmer) is in the middle of writing Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter; but he’s suffering from writer’s block and t isn’t until he falls in love with a stage-struck young lady (sweet Lucy Brigg-Owen) that the poetry pours out of him, and not just the poetry.
A major innovation in Hall’s adaptation is that Christopher Marlowe makes a greater impact than he did in the film. He is Will’s best friend and mentor and helps him to find the right word, not only in his playwriting but also when he goes courting. The balcony love scene, a straight crib from Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, is very funny and David Oakes’ performance as Marlowe is perfect. No wonder Shakespeare is so deeply moved by his friend’s death in pub in Deptford and, in a brilliant and original touch, it seems as if Will is responsible.
The only major fault with the production is the final Romeo and Juliet death scene which simply goes on far too long. No doubt, it will be edited, especially since it isn’t very well acted.