Review: Shakespeare in Love, Arts Centre Melbourne (VIC)

Thuy On

A period rom-com that celebrates the mess and magic of theatre.
Review: Shakespeare in Love, Arts Centre Melbourne (VIC)

Director Simon Phillips has again teamed up with set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova for Melbourne Theatre Company’s Shakespeare in Love. Photo: Jeff Busby.

It would be hard pressed to deliver a more a crowd-pleasing and easy inroad to Shakespeare than the latest MTC production.

Shakespeare in Love is a frothy period drama: a comedy set in London 1593 and centred on the young bard (Michael Wahr), who’s crippled with writer’s block while in the middle of working on Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter – yes, the awkward title is a good indication that this isn’t going to be a strenuous night out at the theatre. Enter Viola (Claire van Der Boom), who becomes the muse that sets his quill aquiver again. But this, being a soft Shakespearean satire, you know there will be mistaken identities and cross dressing in the offing. So for the uninitiated, expect hijinks aplenty, a scattering of in-jokes (watch out for an unexpected ‘Out damn, Spot!’) and a metafictional story-within-a-story that would lead to the eventual creation of Romeo and Juliet, as life and imagination intertwine and a smitten poet falls in love with a wannabe actor. (Women were not permitted on the stage back in the 16th century so a resourceful Viola had to pretend to be a man in order to tread the boards). Shakespeare’s original play however, devolves from a comedy into a tragedy as his relationship with Viola becomes complicated by his previous attachment and her filial sense of obligation. For those who need clarity, all of this is fiction, not biography.

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Though it premiered five years ago in London, this is the Australian debut of a play based on the 1998 film by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard that garnered a slew of Oscars. Lee Hall’s adaptation does not presume prior knowledge of the movie; the narrative is easy enough to pick up, unlike some of the real Shakespeare’s more tortuous plotlines for his own work. The key to this MTC show is to just sit back and enjoy its romp-like features. Apart from the leading lovers, who at least need to adopt a semblance of gravity, the rest of the large cast is given licence to be as camp as possible. The audience is reminded of the fact that really, back in the day, the acting of plays was a haphazard albeit robust effort, filled with last-minute scene changes and roles thanks to the whim of the playwright and the availability of the players. The bitchy rivalry between acting companies, the peacocking of its main actors, the majestic froideur of Queen Elizabeth (Deidre Rubenstein), the easy friendship Shakespeare has with compatriot Kit Marlowe (Luke Arnold), and the pomposity of Viola’s suitor Lord Wessex (Daniel Frederiksen): all of this provides plenty of cheer and hilarity. The live music also adds flavour and interest.

It’s a fast-moving show, with actors playing multiple roles and a set that has to change quickly to accommodate the pace, and at times it’s actually difficult to pay attention to the words as the eye is so busy taking in the many lavish, specially designed costumes (apparently an unprecedented 80). Director Simon Phillips has once again teamed up with set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova (the duo have been responsible for many collaborations including Muriel’s Wedding the Musical and MTC’s Twelfth Night). The result is impressive, with obsessive Elizabethan detailing. Wigs, shoes, ruffs, hats as well as the actual frocks are festooned with various trims, embellishments, feathers and drapery and even the scene-stealing dog gets its own ruff.

A rom-com writ large on a colourful stage about the make-believe life of a real writer who wrote exquisite poetry, Shakespeare in Love is, as playwright Lee Hall posits, “England’s Greatest Living Playwright’s (Stoppard) joyful homage to England’s Greatest Dead Playwright.” It’s also hugely entertaining and a celebration of the mess and magic of theatre itself.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

Shakespeare in Love
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall
15 July-14 August 2019
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne (VIC)
Tickets $42-$114

About the author

Thuy On is a freelance literary journalist and critic and the books editor of The Big Issue.