“Shall I compare thee… to… a something? An autumn morning?” deliberates young Will Shakespeare, frustrated with his untimely bout of writer’s block. He’s working on his new play Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, but the flow of his creative juices is being stifled by pressure from debt-ridden theatre manager, Philip Henslowe. Matters are made worse by the ego-battering rivalry with fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe, the darling of the theatre scene. Inspiration strikes when he meets Viola De Lesseps, an aspiring actor, determined to make it on to the stage even though her gender forbids it. Their doomed romance has the requisite recklessness, passion, danger and heartbreak to inspire him to write the story of a certain other pair of star-cross’d lovers.
Fast-paced, witty and littered with allusions to the Bard (of varying levels of sublety), Shakespeare in Love is a playful wink to thespians, theatre-lovers and English teacher-types. Pierro Niel-Mee is endearingly boyish and quixotic as Will, and Imogen Daines gives an assured performance as the headstrong and rebellious Viola. In some of their romantic scenes, their convincing chemistry brings the play admirably close to recreating the emotional power of Shakespeare himself – to criticise the production, which is essentially a frothy rom-com, for not fully achieving this would be incredibly harsh, even though the intertextuality does seem to constantly invite this comparison. One scene in particular does a capable job of conveying the electric erotic connection, the agony of separation and the high-stakes risk of being caught of Act 3, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet. This is particularly impressive for a scene that ends with Will in comedic drag.
The supporting cast add vibrancy and vitality to the production: Geraldine Alexander is the cackling and candid Queen Elizabeth I, a role defined by Judi Dench’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1998 film. Ian Hughes is the hapless Henslowe, whose comical, gurning displays of impotent frustration and nervous anxiety are amusingly reminiscent of Simon Bodger – in a good way(!). Rowan Polonski plays the entertainingly narcissistic leading-man, Ned Alleyn, with fabulous flourish. As Kit Marlowe, Edmund Kingsley’s confidence, slickness and smugness provide a nice counterpoint to wide-eyed protagonist, Will.
Max Jones’ rotating set compliments the play’s rambunctious pace. The Elizabethan music and use of candlelight add to the romance, sense of parody, and emphasise that the play is primarily an affectionate, light-hearted tribute to Shakespeare, and to the world of theatre. This sense of homage is underlined by the venue itself: the King’s theatre, with its ornate décor and a central dome depicting a scene inspired by As You Like it, seems the perfect setting for a production of this nature.