Shakespeare in Love
Philip Henslowe is widely regarded as the most important English theatre proprietor and manager of the Elizabethan Age. “The natural condition of the theatre business”, he explains in Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s brilliantly clever play ‘Shakespeare in Love’, “is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. Strangely enough, it all turns out well. I don’t know how, it’s a mystery.”
Anybody who has ever been involved in the complex process of staging a play will recognise the truth of the observation. If there were any obstacles on the road to mounting the Crescent Theatre’s latest play, they were certainly not in evidence on opening night. All turned out extremely well in a slick and witty production full of poetry and guaranteed to make you fall in love with Shakespeare all over again.
“Shakespeare in Love is a kind of fantasy,” explains director Michael Barry. “What if William Shakespeare had a complete writer’s block?” This intriguing question is the basis for exploring one of the greatest love stories of all time: Romeo and Juliet. Adapted for the stage by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall, the play follows the struggles of a young Shakespeare in London trying to make his mark on the theatre scene. The cure to his writer’s block comes in the form of Viola de Lesseps, beauty and muse, who inspires sublime poetry but is betrothed to another. Shakespeare’s pursuit of Viola and Romeo’s of Juliet merge in an ingenious plot which is a tale of doomed love and an homage to the man from Stratford rolled into one.
Oliver Jones bears a striking resemblance to what we think Shakespeare looked like, as did Joseph Fiennes in the 1998 multi-Oscar-winning film. He does far more than simply look the part, however, in a perfectly pitched performance full of pathos and poetry. There is real chemistry between his Bard and Viola, superbly played by Bethany Gilbert. Lines from Romeo and Juliet are delivered with an understanding of the rhythms of the poetry and the star-crossed lovers are equally affecting in both tender and comic scenes.
They are ably supported by a huge and hugely talented cast of 37, appropriately matching the number of plays written by Shakespeare. Standouts include Jack Hobbis who balances mania, excitement and frustration perfectly in the comic role of Henslowe and Alisdair Hurst who is handsomely debonair as rival playwright Kit Marlowe. Jaz Davison is an imperious Queen Elizabeth I, resplendent in one of many terrific costumes.
Music is certainly the food of love in this production and under Gary Spruce’s direction is a wonderful accompaniment, lifting the whole evening with a host of instruments and voices. And the set design (Keith Harris) works brilliantly to place the action in a realistic Elizabethan theatre.
“You will never age for me, nor fade, nor die” declares Viola of William Shakespeare at one point in the play. It’s a sentiment shared by millions of people around the world. His plays continue to be read, performed, watched and enjoyed over 400 years after his death. Whether you’re a bardolator or a newcomer, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ is a perfect reminder of what makes this playwright so very special. And this Crescent Theatre production is a hit. A very palpable hit.
‘Shakespeare in Love’ is playing at The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham from 24th September to 1st October 2022.