Shakespeare in Love by Lee Hall

Shakespeare in Love is a play about William Shakespeare meeting his muse, finding his voice and writing Romeo and Juliet. One hundred pairs of eyes are eagerly await every word that flows from his pen. At the start the sense of expectation is acute, as we meet young Shakespeare who carries the responsibility of being a playwright magnificently and battles writer’s block and self-doubt.

In Elizabethan England there are two eminent playwrights: William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe; and two rival theatre-companies owned by entrepreneurs, Philip Henslowe and Richard Burbage. Shakespeare in Love sparkles with wit and exuberance and transports you effortlessly back into the chaos of Elizabethan England, the shambles of most theatre-companies and the financially precarious life of theatre-owners.

Particularly in the first half, the script is complex, jumping from one Shakespearean play or sonnet to another. If you know your Shakespeare, it’s a delight. The play is based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes and adapted for the stage by Lee Hall. The rivalry between Shakespeare and Marlowe is an interesting conceit – think Cyrano de Bergerac and look out for conspiracy theories.

Lewis Todhunter is compelling as William Shakespeare, in his second major role as the male protagonist this year. (He was Bertie in the King’s Speech during the Fringe.) He is self-assured and has great presence. His muse is Viola de Lesseps acted by Melissa Paris, she loves acting in Shakespearean plays, and is vivacious and diffident in equal measure. Emmie Spencer, who is cast as the Nurse in the most comic part in the play, performs superbly well and gets the most laughs.

Arlo Giles-Buabasah is the youngest member of the cast of Shakespeare in Love. He is on set a lot of the time and overlooked, as children often are, but he saves the day. I look forward to seeing Arlo in another production at Brighton Little Theatre (BLT.) I think he is only upstaged by Mollie, the dog called Spot.

Mike Skinner is affable and astute as Mr Henslowe and keeps his financial pressures to himself. Richard Fisher has piercing eyes, fit for any villain and not unlike those of Nikki Dunsford who plays Queen Elizabeth I. She is commanding with natural authority. Oliver Russell is the controlling suitor, Lord Wessex. Andrew Bird does not have many lines but he delivers them with aplomb.

The character of Burbage could be better developed in the script.  After his death, a consortium of the Lord Chamberlain’s men, including Shakespeare, built the Globe theatre in 1598 where almost all of his later plays were performed. You can still visit the Globe today to watch Shakespeare in a reconstructed theatre on the Southbank of the River Thames in London

Organising a cast of 23 is not easy, it was popular among the BLT company, of course, because it’s a play about the theatre. Direction of the play by Claire Lewis and Howard Abbott is excellent. The set is imaginative and compact.

Shakespeare in Love is an exhilarating romp through the playwright’s most famous scenes and offers a window into the mirth and magic of the theatre. It’s a timeless play about the private life of a writer whose unparalleled ability to write about the human condition is unmatched. I recommend this play as a celebration of life, love and loss.

Four stars ****