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Oxford Playhouse

Shakespeare in Love
4.0Reviewer's Rating

At one level I have nothing but good to report about the play Shakespeare in Love, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. The revolving set designed by Max Jones works a treat to enable the story to unfold seamlessly (though to my eye it was a bit of an homage to the set of the original production of the musical Oliver – but let that pass). The clever presentation of Shakespeare scenes within the play; the suggestion of the actual Elizabethan theatre and its design; the compositions of Paddy Cunneen that suggest the music of the era and nicely set some of the songs from Shakespeare plays and sonnets – all this works extremely well. I also liked the cast a lot – I thought they worked together well as an ensemble and individually deserved strong praise. Invidiously to pick out just a few of them, Pierro Niel-Mee as Will Shakespeare was very plausible and appealing in his suggestion both of the writer’s block and the inspirational elements of Shakespeare trying to write Romeo and Juliet; Edmund Kingley was very striking as Kit Marlowe; Rowan Polonski was particularly striking as Ned Alleyn/Mercutio; and Imogen Daines was an attractive and touching Viola de Lesseps. I very much enjoyed Geraldine Alexander both as the nurse and a camp Queen Elizabeth I; and I found Bill Ward strong and pivotal in the way he played Lord Wessex.

‘Shakespeare in Love’

Lee Hall has been quite true to the original film with some clever twists and changes that I should not spoil in advance; and high praise should be given to Phillip Green for his imaginative direction of the ensemble and to Ayse Tashkiran for the movement, especially in the group scenes; and to Renny Krupinski for the excellently choreographed fights.

So what is my problem? It is, indeed, the Oscar-winning film itself. If you are coming to this material for the first time, fresh and raw, I am certain you will find it charming, engaging, thought-provoking, stimulating and completely fascinating. Nothing in the story probably did happen; and yet there is nothing in it that could not have happened and it is a wonderful and clever riff on Shakespeare’s life and times and plays and career. But the source is the Oscar- winning film; and if you have seen that, then there really is nothing in the play that adds to the experience. The actors in the main roles are fighting memories of Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Imelda Staunton, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Rupert Everett, and, of course, Judi Dench. The play adds very little if anything to what the film was telling us or asking us to consider and you also have to balance the filmic sets that evoke the era so strongly and realistically that you can almost smell them against the clever, cool stagecraft. Certainly the pleasure of seeing actors tell us the story live, on stage, is not to be sniffed at.

But, as good as this production is, I just cannot see the point of it. If you have never seen the film, perhaps you should see this play to discover the material. But in the end, all the play is doing for me is driving me back to seeing the twenty-year old film one more time.

  • Comedy
  • Adapted from Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's screenplay by Lee Hall
  • Directed by Philip Been
  • Cast includes: Pierro Niel-Mee, Edmund Kingsley, Imogen Daines, Geraldine Alexander, Bill Ward, Rowan Polonski
  • Oxford Playhouse
  • On tour until 24 November 2018

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper came to the UK to study at Oxford and stayed, captivated by the culture and history of the welcoming and tolerant society of Britain. He founded the magazine Opera Now. He was a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting and a member of the team that started Classic FM on which he broadcast shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature.

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