More often than not, films are based on novels or plays already well established in literature or on the stage. What fun, then, to turn that notion on its head by taking the 1998 Best Picture (screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard—cross reference below) and reworking it (stage adaptation by Lee Hall). The result is decidedly more satisfying than the movie (save and except for Judi Dench’s few minutes of regal glory as Elizabeth I).
No doubt not coincidentally in its placement, director Declan Donnellan’s lively paced production truly caps a Stratford Festival opening week that—with one notable exception, cross-reference below) has been the strongest liftoff in many, many years.
Similar to A Chorus Line, the ensemble is the star. Sure, Luke Humphrey’s Will Shakespeare—struggling to create the text for Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter that has already been twice sold!—has all the write stuff (and without the quill fixation of Joseph Fiennes in John Madden’s production) and Shannon Taylor brings a marvellous sense of delight to the reverse cross-dressing Viola de Lesseps, but their work is made relatively easy by Donnellan’s knowing guidance and a supporting cast that almost never hits a false note or misses a cue. The only blemish of significance stems from the far from pitch-perfect vocal contributions whether solo or chorus—frequently when a cappella or lightly (er, lutely?) accompanied.
Designer Nick Ormerod has conjured up a set and costumes that reflect Shakespeare’s London to a T. Jane Gibson—much in the same vein as Donna Feore—has provided her troupe with movement and dance that fully appreciates the various skill sets.
The set piece dog (Spot, a.k.a. Cole) gag—with a real-life performance worthy of Rin Tin Tin) has a spectacular payoff (far beyond the obvious groaner, “Out damn spot”) after the four-footed canine serves up Lord Wessex’s (Rylan Wilkie readily at home as the opportunistic Virginia plantation owner) comeuppance with Academy Award timing of its own.
Two important narrative items are much better handled on stage than in front of the camera. Shakespeare’s proclivity to go both ways is much more than a brief crotch grab instead puckering up with a beard to succinctly demonstrate to Viola (a.k.a. mustachioed Romeo in the play within the play) just how to render a full-on kiss to someone who also shaves—wearing a dress or not.
And the pivotal role of Christopher Marlowe (Saamer Usmani positively nails the part) is wisely given much more “screen” time than the uncredited Rupert Everett in the film.
Was Shakespeare’s love(s) the real inspiration for a canon of work the likes of which have never been surpassed?
It matters not, methinks but it’s a riot of fun just what (or who…) made Will’s magnificent mind tick. JWR