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Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, North American Premiere (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)
Review date: 24 August, 2016


After two days of bloody battles and “hurly-burlying” on Canada’s Stratford Festival stages (Macbeth, Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V), the North American premiere of Shakespeare in Love was a most welcome fantasy journey into what director Declan Donnellan calls Tom Stoppard’s “dream of Shakespeare.”

Based on the screenplay of the movie by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (that surprised everyone by grossing over $100 million at North American box offices in 1998), the new play is adapted for the stage by Lee Hall and captures much of the magic of the original movie while adding thrills that only a live production can accomplish. The play first opened in London in 2014 and adapter Hall estimates that the play retains “around 90%” of the original movie’s script.

Set in London in 1593, theatre manager Henslowe’s feet are being held over the fire (literally) until he makes due on his debts to money lender Fennyman. His only hope is Shakespeare’s promise of a new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, that the Bard has doubly sold to his competitor, Richard Burbage. Perhaps needless to say, madness ensues as the play morphs into Romeo and Juliet and, in search of a muse, Shakespeare discovers both the actor of his dreams and the love of his life in the beautiful Viola de Lesseps. The problem is, Viola is promised, by Queen Elizabeth herself, to Lord Wessex, and, disregarding the potential peril of his best friend Kit Marlowe, Shakespeare offers up Marlowe’s name when Wessex threatens to kill him for “wooing” his wife to be.

What follows, in the able hands of director Donnellan, is a frenzied, madcap series of witty scenes spouting references to the greatest hits of Shakespeare and John Webster’s to the delight and glee of the knowing Stratford audience.

Stephen Ouimette is perfect as the constantly besieged Henslowe, Steve Ross offers a fun foil as Burbage, Tom McCamus is hilarious as ruthless businessman turned actor Fennyman, Rylan Wilkie is bold and pathetic as Wessex and Brad Hodder shines as the star turned supporting player Ned Alleyn. It’s never easy to play a character that everyone in the audience feels they “know,” yet Luke Humphrey creates a sincere, confused, besotted, redeemed Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola matches Humphrey’s passion and honesty scene-by-scene. The mature Stratford crowd tittered vociferously when Shakespeare’s bare-buns shine with the moon in the rapturous love scenes—a fun surprise reversal of the movie’s focus on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola!

Saamer Usmani is marvelous as Shakespeare’s loyal friend and fellow playwright Kit Marlow and Tal Shulman is an impeccably creepy John Webster (as he should be). Sarah Orenstein sparkles as Queen Elizabeth and it’s a well-cast and finely tuned company overall.

Nick Ormerod’s ingenious scene design is cleverly manipulated for both on stage and back stage action and the clothes, quick changes and gender switching demands are accomplished with aplomb and Kevin Fraser lights it well. Jane Gibson’s choreography and Terry King’s original fight choreography are eye-catching and entertaining and Paddy Cunneen’s work as composer along with Peter McBoyle’s sound designs enhance the rapid fire pace of the play while capturing the ever-changing moods of the transitions from boisterous rehearsals to intricate private moments between the lovers.

This is a “new” Shakespeare play that will be making the rounds of Shakespeare Festivals for many years to come as playwrights Tom Stoppard, Marc Norman and adapter Lee Hall balance the playfulness of Midsummer with the fights of Henry V and the cleverness of The Taming of the Shrew, envisioning the beginnings of the Bard’s glorious reign as Western civilization’s greatest playwright.

Shakespeare in Love plays in the Stratford Festival’s intimate Avon Theatre through October 16.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Member, American Theatre Critics Association
ISE Theatre Critic

Permanent link to full entry 08:22:20 am. Categories: Stage Performances  


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