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Canada's Shakespeare in Love Proves Touching and Wonderfully Waggish

by Jim Volz. Written on 2016-08-24. Published in 2017 Issue 1.

For the production Shakespeare in Love (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)

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

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

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

What followed, in the able hands of Director Donnellan, was 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 was perfect as the constantly besieged Henslowe, Steve Ross offered a fun foil as Burbage, Tom McCamus was hilarious as ruthless businessman turned actor Fennyman, Rylan Wilkie was bold and pathetic as Wessex, and Brad Hodder shined 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 created a sincere, confused, besotted, redeemed Shakespeare, and Shannon Taylor as Viola matched Humphrey’s passion and honesty scene-by-scene. The mature Stratford crowd tittered vociferously when Shakespeare’s bare-buns shined with the moon in the rapturous love scenes—a fun surprise reversal of the movie’s focus on Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1998 Viola.

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

Nick Ormerod’s ingenious scene design was cleverly manipulated for both on stage and back stage action, the clothes with their quick changes and gender switching demands were accomplished with aplomb, and Kevin Fraser lit it well. Jane Gibson’s choreography and Terry King’s original fight choreography were eye catching and entertaining, and Paddy Cunneen’s work as composer along with Peter McBoyle’s sound designs enhanced 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 Stoppard, Norman, and Adapter Hall balance the playfulness of A Midsummer Night's Dream with the fights of Henry the Fifth and the cleverness of The Taming of the Shrew, envisioning the beginnings of the Bard’s glorious reign as Western civilization’s greatest playwright.

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