Beef­ing up the bard nicely for the stage

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -


Noël Cow­ard Theatre, Lon­don WC2

FILMS DON’T eas­ily con­vert into plays. For this one, a lot of the­atri­cal know-how has been con­scripted into adapt­ing Tom Stop­pard and Marc Nor­man’s Os­car­win­ning screen­play. Writer Lee Hall, who did a bril­liant job con­vert­ing the film Billy El­liot into a hit mu­si­cal, has teamed up with direc­tor De­clan Don­nel­lan. The re­sult is im­pres­sively fluid. Scenes change with­out one hav­ing to va­cate the stage for the next. But as is of­ten the case with stage adap­ta­tions, mem­o­ries of the orig­i­nal film spool along si­mul­ta­ne­ously, leav­ing the stage ver­sion in front of you feel­ing aw­fully, well, stagey.

Nick Ormerod’s de­sign of the bal­conied Rose Theatre clev­erly adapts for the lo­ca­tions in this El­iz­a­bethan fan­tasy. The plot, fans of the film will know, is about a strug­gling play­wright called Shake­speare — played here by an im­prob­a­bly beefy Tom Bate­man — who is churn­ing out a com­edy called Romeo and (wait for it) Ethel, the Pi­rate’s Daugh­ter for his pro­ducer. When Will falls in love, he de­cides to write a tragedy in­stead.

There is a lot of fun con­jec­ture here about how the first pro­duc­tion of pos­si­bly the most fa­mous play ever writ­ten came about. Will spends the au­di­tions for Romeo with his head buried in his hands, ex­as­per­ated by the sheer aw­ful tal­ent on of­fer. But when it comes to the ac­tual per­for­mance of (even­tu­ally re­named) Romeo and Juliet, the re­sult is as mov­ing as any ver­sion I’ve seen. Yet this show is


very much a com­edy. Af­ter Will falls for Vi­ola (Lucy Briggs-Owen) — the daugh­ter of a wealthy mer­chant who yearns to be an ac­tor in one of the bud­ding bard’s plays — the main thrust of the evening is about putting on a pro­duc­tion, the point be­ing that lit­tle has changed. Pro­duc­ers still de­mand scripts for as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. Bums on seats is still the name of the game. In that sense, this is a play for theatre mak­ers as much as theatre-go­ers. And the run­ning gags about Shake­spearean phrase-mak­ing and putting on a show work bet­ter for be­ing in a theatre than they did on screen.

Shake­speare him­self is de­picted as a flawed ge­nius who of­ten re­lies on his fel­low play­wright Christo­pher Mar­lowe (a charis­matic David Oakes) for in­spi­ra­tion. And the evening hangs on a clas­si­cally Shake­spearean plot de­vice that sees Briggs-Owen’s Vi­ola dis­guise her­self as a boy ac­tor. And although Don­nel­lan’s pro­duc­tion lags in the sec­ond half by de­vot­ing too much stage time to Romeo and Juliet, the evening is brim­ful of charm and clev­er­ness and paced with some gor­geous sing­ing.

But what el­e­vates this show into some­thing far su­pe­rior to the “Carry on” Shake­speare romp that the film and play could so eas­ily have been is the Stop­par­dian­spinonShake­spearewhich rev­els in ir­rev­er­ence as well as love for the lan­guage, the plays and the man.

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