Shakespeare’s brief fling keeps audience on its feet

Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Shakespeare in Love
Stratford Festival 2016
Avon Theatre

Written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Stage adaptation by Lee Hall
Directed by Declan Donnellan

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes (with one 20-minute interval)

May 30-October 23

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There’s no question Shakespeare in Love is a pleasantly playful romp but after 18 years it’s still a shock to grasp the reality that the film walked away with seven Oscars including its best picture triumph over Steven Spielberg’s far superior Saving Private Ryan.

Almost two decades have since passed and here we are at the Stratford Festival awaiting the unveiling of writer Lee Hall’s long anticipated stage adaptation of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s original movie screenplay.

Like its cinematic predecessor the stage version is indeed pleasant and playful, full of merriment, cheeky innuendos, pratfalls and not-too subtle hints that the young bard was no stranger to writer’s block, borrowed furiously from others like the grand Christopher Marlowe and even a few hangers-on – all fiction of course.

Skillfully directed by Declan Donnellan, with a sharp eye for fast pacing and continuity, the play features a very likable Luke Humphrey as a lovesick but already married Will Shakespeare, pining for Shannon Taylor’s breezy Viola de Lesseps (arguably better suited to the role than the Oscar-winning Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who is initially more in love with the writings than the playwright.

While well-executed pratfalls, quick witticisms, bedroom escapades and perfunctory yet engagingly staged battles feature prominently in the lengthy production, the storyline often comes off as a tad predictable with the implausible mistaken identity device humorous but far from convincing. Viola’s alter ego Thomas Kent – the ploy used so she can make her stage debut in Elizabethan England’s all-male acting profession – is lengthy on cuteness.

Scene-stealing standouts include Brad Hodder’s outrageously uber-macho actor Ned Alleyn who is convinced that Mercutio is the real hero of Shakespeare’s yet-to-be completed Romeo and Juliet; Stephen Ouimette’s twitchy, wretchedly poor playwright and owner of the Rose Theatre; Saamer Usmani’s flashy, flamboyant Kit (Christopher) Marlowe; Karen Robinson’s loving Nurse; Sarah Orenstein’s Queen Elizabeth 1, who regally calls for more humour the next time around; Tom McCamus’ Fennyman walking off with the lion’s share of great one-liners and last but not least the cagy canine that grabs his/her share of the spotlight on more than one occasion.

Not great literature like that emanating from the pen of the great Shakespeare but nonetheless a satisfying night of good-natured fun and frivolity that brought the delighted actors back onstage for four rousing encores. ***1/2 stars out of five.

Geoff Dale is a Woodstock-based freelance writer.

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