So why did I all of a sudden recall Gwynnie’s ‘90s-era acting ability with such fondness? It’s kind of mean, but it’s because I just saw the new play version of “Shakespeare in Love” on the West End. It’s a lovely, fun show that you’ll enjoy, especially if you liked the movie. But if, like me, you loved the movie, so much so that you confront the 90% of the populace that still likes to argue that it shouldn’t have won Best Picture over “Saving Private Ryan”, then you will also, like me, find various quibbles with this show’s lack of editing, its pushing of easy physical laughs, and…the crazy voice of its Viola. (I mean, you don’t have to have even seen the movie to agree with the latter.)
Anyway, yes, so the story is indeed centered on Viola’s voice, or what she does with it: act. She is a noble lady promised to marry a truly awful man named Wessex, but she just wants to be an actor, especially in Shakespeare’s plays, because she has an enormous literary crush on him and yearns for her life to be filled with poetry, as all young girls do. Fortunately for her, she’s actually a superb actor. Viola calls up all her courage and auditions for a new play disguised as a man, meeting the bard himself during her ‘amazing’ audition. This is when I started to roll my eyes a little. At this point, Will Shakespeare is super down in the dumps, dirty-haired, shirt-unbuttoned, totally out of sorts and depressed that he’ll never be able to find a star for his new play “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter”. We see awful no good actor after awful no good actor butcher auditions as Will sinks deeper. But then Viola, disguised as Thomas Kent, enters and begins her monologue from “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, and it’s supposed to rouse Will from the darkness, give him hope in his play, and make him fall in a sort of awe-inspired love. But…but…but…her voice! I didn’t believe that the anti-smoking ad that Viola seemed to make out of “What light be light if Sylvia be not seen” would have changed Will’s life so. Well, but it did, so I’ll stop mocking the poor girl’s voice. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a fantastic actress; I just didn’t get her for this part where the purity and beauty of the voice is so important! The best is in the famous canoe scene, when Will is describing to ‘Thomas’ his feelings for Viola, and she’s like “tell me about her beauty; what’s her hair like?” and Will’s like “long and blonde so nice” and Viola’s like “and her lips” and Will’s like “erma, such lips” and then Viola’s like “and her voice?” and I cackled.
Anywayyyyy, so Will’s like erma p. gerd, I found my Romeo, and at about the same time, he sees the undisguised Viola at a ball he crashed, and is like, erma p., I found my muse and my love because I loves me some long blonde hair and influenza-ridden smoker voice. I’m sorry now I’m done. So Will Shakespeare, this beyond brilliant best playwright of all time, OF ALL TIME, doesn’t realize that they’re the same person even though all his plays feature gender-bending disguises. I guess all those plot-twists come after this point in time, inspired by Viola. Cute.
Oh besides the voice, the craziest change from the movie is how stupid Will seems before he meets Viola/Thomas. The play starts with him trying to write Sonnet #18, “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day”, with the whole company watching. It’s kind of funny, how he can’t finish the first line, but then it gets tiresome when we hear the sonnet for the 9th time in one act. Also, Christopher Marlowe helps him write it, or really writes most of it for him. He also gives Will most of the groundwork for the main conflict of “Romeo & Juliet”, plus the name Juliet. In the play, it’s completely different from the not-so-good-natured playwright rivalry of the movie. Instead, the play shows them as pretty much BFFs, with Marlowe being the brains of the operation and Will being brilliant only when inspired by love. Marlowe’s death is that much sadder, and I loved their boyish friendship. But I didn’t like how the entire first act made Will sort of a buffoon. It is very easy and effective to show writer’s block as the movie did – somewhat subtly and realistically. It doesn’t need to be over the top. Who doesn’t know what writer’s block is! It’s unnecessary to show writer’s block by having the writer seem stupid. Now that’s just offensive to all writers. I did, however, really like the actor playing Marlowe, and I am glad they made the part so much bigger and meatier for the play for his sake, so let’s call it a draw.
The rest of Shakespeare’s acting troupe included a mustachioed yet winning pirate with long greasy hair playing the Ben Affleck role, a young pretty-faced boy who plays the girl parts while he can, and a tailor given the prologue whose stutter we’re supposed to laugh at?? In the film, the stutterer was someone you rooted for and cheered with when he conquered it with performing. But in the show, it felt more like the stutter was on display for the audience to ridicule. Not a good change. Please, if you see this or any other show ever, you’re probably a douche if you laugh at disability on display.
Queen Elizabeth, the role Judi Dench won an Oscar for despite only having like 4 lines and being onscreen for a shorter time than it takes me to tie my shoes, is played more humorous than regal here, which is somewhat off-putting. I don’t know Lizzie the I like I know Lizzie the II, but I’m pretty sure neither of them would be humorous in front of the general public. In front of family and friends, sure, but not in front of poor people. This Queen was written, directed, and acted just a little too familiarly. I want my queens bitchy, stern, and formal, thanks.
My favorite minor character I didn’t even realize was my favorite until the program verified it afterwards. Paul Chahidi, who was the glorious maid in Twelfth Night on Broadway last season (with Mark Rylance, originally at the Globe), played the Geoffrey Rush producer part of Henslowe. Paul Chahidi is superb and I want to see him as the humorous sidekick in pretty much every single play, even those without humorous sidekicks. Rush gave the movie its major memorable line, as he said at various points, to explain how things sort of work themselves out, “It’s a mystery!” and it was adorable, and we liked it, and we loved it. Chahidi’s Henslowe says it once early on and I smiled…but then in Act Two, he started saying it more and more. In the final 20 minutes, I think he said it 4 times. That is too many. That’s the writer’s fault, not Chahidi’s (Paul’s likeability is what saves us from groaning) but that’s something that should have been caught. That overuse and the 9 times we have to listen to Sonnet #18 should have been addressed by editors.
Regardless of these quibbles, the play is overall enjoyable and should make you laugh and cry and laugh and cry some more if you are not a robot. They really should have taken the opportunity to make this a musical and try to elevate it above and beyond the movie, rather than aiming to equal it, but I’ll leave that development to future artists. The story is strong enough without music, I guess. Will and Viola fall in love, Will is totally inspired and writes the genius “Romeo & Juliet” (it’s genius, even if you’re still sick of it from middle school), and Viola has to follow the queen’s and her father’s orders and marry Wessex. This oh this was also much worse than the movie. Wessex is a total shit in both, just a horrible awful man, but at least in the movie he looked like Colin Firth so you didn’t feel toooo badly for Viola. Here he’s just a normal so it’s real sad. Also, her father (whom I don’t think we see in the movie) is an even worse shit. So at least she gets away from him. The maid, the best part of the movie because it’s Imelda Stanton, is just okay here. She kind of milks her “It is a new day!” line to get laughs from the audience when really it should only be the set-up for Viola’s “It is a new world” reply, which is instead tossed aside.
Tom Bateman as Will works unbelievably hard, so hard that the sweat literally pours off of him throughout the show. His hair was soaking wet the entire time, even at stage door. I was like, “I don’t know how you are going to do a second show tonight” and he said “I don’t know either!” which is funny and self-deprecating but then he lit a cigarette and I was like, oh so you want to struggle to keep up, I get it.
So, anyway, no matter how you felt about the movie, this show is worth seeing. It’s not perfect, and like 99% of shows (/movies/television/books/anything), I wish I was able to edit it before it was considered set and finished, but alas, it has a few flaws. Luckily, these flaws won’t keep you from enjoying the show, and at least in the case of Viola’s uncharacteristically husky voice, some of them will help you enjoy it more. Okay now I’m done making fun.