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Oscar winning movie Shakespeare in Love was the runaway hit of the 1990s. Heartbreakingly romantic, hilariously funny and filled with clever references to the eponymous playwright and his works, the film swept audiences off their feet upon its release in 1998. Praise was heaped on the pitch perfect performances by the film’s leads, Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow. Paltrow won the Academy Award for best actress for the role of Viola de Lessops, while her co-star Judi Dench picked up an Oscar for her memorable turn as Queen Elizabeth I, despite having less than eight minutes of screen time.

Fifteen years after its original cinema release, Shakespeare in Love has finally been transported to the West End. The vibrantly theatrical film seems to be perfectly suited to the stage. The new production is masterminded by Lee Hall, the man responsible for Billy Elliot’s Olivier-award-winning transfer from screen to stage. Shakespeare in Love: The Play opened for previews on 2 July 2014 at the Noel a Coward Theatre surrounded by an undeniable buzz.

The Importance of Theatre

The importance of the theatrical theme to the story is established from the moment the audience enters the auditorium. The curtains are open, revealing a minimalistic set, immediately recognisable as an Elizabethan theatre. Simple and effective, the Globe-esque set later doubles as a balcony, a house and even a ship. The theatrical set also acts as a constant reminder that what we are watching is fictional: no one knows exactly how Shakespeare lived and this set is an intelligent acknowledgement of the artistic license the production has taken.

Tom Bateman is charismatic and passionate as protagonist Will Shakespeare. He succeeds in humanizing the bard in the same way Fiennes did before him. The audience are introduced to Will as he struggles with crippling writers block, which is cleverly represented by the entire company standing around him, expectantly waiting for the appearance of the next line of his next play. The witty script also establishes its penchant for Shakespearean in-jokes in this first scene. We witness a frustrated Will struggle to compose his now-famous Sonnet 18. The iconic opening line “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” undergoes few, slightly less inspiring, drafts before it becomes the great love poem we know it to be today.

Winning performances 

The play cleverly imagines Shakespeare’s journey from a struggling playwright to the great writer we remember him as. His relationship with Viola (Lucy Briggs-Owen) his talented leading actress, who has to disguise herself as a boy in an attempt to thwart the sixteenth century ban on women on stage, inspires him to grow as a person as well as a playwright.

As Viola, Briggs-Owen is spirited and expressive, successfully conveying all of her character’s passion and her emotional journey. Bateman and Briggs-Owen are an appealing couple, however their romance did not move me to quite the same extent as it did in the film. The parallel which is introduced between Will and Viola’s doomed relationship and the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is perhaps slightly over-drawn: their final scene together is arguably too reliant on dialogue from Shakespeare’s play. That having be said, the actors speak the Shakespearean dialogue beautifully and although it perhaps distracts somewhat from the actual story the play wants to tell, it is understandable why the writers felt the urge to include this beautiful dialogue.

If the romantic element is slightly underwhelming, the show’s strengths lie in its witty comedy and its talented and likeable cast. Although certain gags are overdrawn, on the whole the jokes are first-class, in particular the witty references to the Shakespearean canon and “the bit with a dog”. The audience also gets the impression the cast are enjoying the show every bit as much as the audience.

David Oakes as Christopher Marlowe is another highlight. Marlowe’s role has been expanded from the film and here he is Shakespeare’s friend and ally, as well as his theatrical rival. Oakes is perfectly cast, interpreting the role with charisma and humour. Marlowe assists Shakespeare in wooing Viola, in a clever reference to the conspiracy theory that suggests it was Marlowe who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Their friendship is fun and believable and Marlowe’s death is rendered all the more tragic as a result. Bateman and Oakes have a great chemistry and it is a shame the audience cannot see more of the two together.

Shakespeare in Love: The Play is great fun and makes for an entertaining evening at the theatre. Fans of the movie will find much to like here and those who are new to the story might find themselves even more swept up in the tale. The romance may not be quite as involving as that in the 1998 movie, but the appealing actors and the clever and amusing script ensure it makes for a great trip to the theatre.

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