I must confess as an English graduate, theatre reviewer and lover of Shakespeare, I had never seen Shakespeare in Love. Before you set a plague on my family, let me reassure you that I have now watched the Oscar-winning movie. And for the record, Stratford Festival’s adaptation resonates with the viewer on a completely different level. What director Declan Donnellan did to bring the story to life on stage is pure magic.
Shakespeare in Love tells the story of young playwright Will Shakespeare (Luke Humphrey) who is struggling to write his latest play that has already been promised to Henslowe (Stephen Ouimette). Henslowe needs it finished as soon as possible so he can repay his debt to Fennyman (Tom McCamus).
Will and Henslowe hold auditions for Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, where Will discovers Thomas Kent, really Viola (Shannon Taylor) in disguise -- the greatest actor he’s ever seen. When Will goes to offer Thomas the role of Romeo, he meets Viola whose beauty and charm crack his writer’s block.
The whole love story between Will and Viola is so much more moving on stage. There are a number of reasons for this, the first being that Taylor plays Viola with a lively and giddy spirit that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola is missing.
The second is that the play’s script allots more time to crucial scenes like the ball scene where they first meet as Will and Viola and the scene where they first kiss, which happens during rehearsal and not in a boat. These script changes allow the audience to witness how fast they fall in love and how deep their love for each other truly is, whereas I feel the film rushes their love story along.
The play starts in a unique way with the cast walking out in full costume and getting into position before the music kicks off and everyone rushes around the stage to set up the opening scene.
This scene starts with everyone crowded around Will as he tries to write his famous quote “shall I compare thee to…” The crowd cheers Will on as he tries out new ideas and fails until Kit “Christopher” Marlowe (Saamer Usmani) gives him the idea of a summer’s day. I love how invested the characters are in Will’s writing. Donnellan also ends the play with everyone crowding around Will as he tries to write Twelfth Night for the Queen. By doing this, Donnellan not only brings the play full circle, which in my opinion is one of the most satisfying ways to end a play, but he also shifts the focus from the love story back to the theatre and writing portion of the storyline.
The play has some truly hilarious moments from the wildly passionate kiss between Will and Viola as Thomas during rehearsal, to Will cross-dressing as Viola’s lady in waiting to escape nearly getting caught in bed together by Wessex (Rylan Wilkie). Laughs abound any time the acting troupe gets together to work on the play because Henslowe does not let go of the idea of Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. The men are a ridiculous bunch from the stuttering tailor who dreams of being an actor, to the young Sam (Thomas Mitchell Barnet) whose voice drops just before the performance takes place.
I love how the characters perform upstage during the performance scene to give the audience a behind-the-scenes look at the drama that unfolds before and during a performance. The men hilariously push Viola onto the stage to take Sam’s place and chase Tilney (Michael Spencer-Davis) and Wessex around before throwing them below the stage so the show goes on uninterrupted. I applaud the innovative decision to use the stage in that way.
One of my favourite changes the Stratford Company makes in this adaptation is the expansion of Kit’s (Usmani’s) role. The movie briefly shows how Kit helps Will develop the idea for Romeo and Juliet, but Stratford’s Kit not only helps Will with his writing, he also helps Will woo Viola with his poetry.
Usmani infuses his Kit with a suave sophistication and charm that pushes Will to be a better writer and a better man. In the hilarious balcony scene where Will woos Viola after they first meet, Kit is the one who calls out to her and even spoon-feeds Will lines until the words start flowing from him naturally.
Last but certainly not least, I have to rave about the spectacular cast. Everyone gives top-notch performances, and I truly mean everyone. Humphrey’s Will is endearing, passionate and raw in his struggle to find his voice and his true love. McCamus as Fennyman, Ouimette as Henslowe and Steve Ross as Burbage give strong performances as the shady businessmen behind London’s burgeoning theatre companies.
I think it's amusing when Fennyman comes out with his special blue beret as the apothecary and I have the strangest desire to answer every question with “it’s a mystery” just like Henslowe does when it comes time for their final performance. Tal Shulman brings the house down with laughs as the crazy John Webster who steals the spotlight with his creepy stare downs and weird obsession with blood and violence.
I thoroughly enjoyed this production and highly recommend you go see this heart-warming show before its run ends.
Shakespeare in Love is playing in the Avon Theatre until Oct. 16. Tickets can be purchased online at stratfordfestival.ca.