Based on the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love tells the story of William Shakespeare on his journey of writing what would become Romeo and Juliet and how his life experiences during that time influenced much of his writing. When we first met Shakespeare (the charismatic and scene-stealing Pierro Niel-Mee) he is established but struggling for inspiration to write his next big hit. The audience want Comedy, but Shakespeare is somewhat reluctant and ends up writing a Tragedy – with some inspiring help from confidant Kit Marlowe (the brilliant Edmund Kinsley).
Viola (the stunning and strong Imogen Daines) longs to perform on the stage during which time this was against the law. She disguises herself as a young boy to join Shakespeare’s company of actors, little to Shakespeare’s knowledge. Shakespeare himself falls in love with the lady Viola and the story evolves from there. Add in the menacing Lord Wessex (a confident Bill Ward) determined to marry Viola against her will, and you have, at it’s core, a beautiful story of freedom. The freedom to be in love with whoever you chose – a topic that people are talking about now more than ever and for good reason. It is also interesting because I last saw this play in the West End a few years back, before the #MeToo movement, so to re-watch it now and seeing just how much can be related to that, especially with Ward’s character, is reason enough why this play is still relevant, in the fact that Viola is forced to be someone she is not just because society doesn’t accept it.
The play lends itself to the cleverness and willingness to nod to the traits of a Shakespeare in a dramatic irony fashion – there is mistaken identity, star-crossed lovers (mirroring Romeo and Juliet perfectly), sword fighting and enough references to keep the whole RSC on their toes. It is also a heartfelt love story. The fantastic cast (Philip Labey, Ian Hughes and Rowan Polonski amongst the stand-outs), accompanying music interludes, revolving stage and intimate lighting help to create the world and feel of the era. I’m usually hesitant to see a new production of a show in case some alterations to the staging didn’t work but the revolve was used to great effect and provided sustained excitement during a scene change, and when applicable, added to the foreboding atmosphere.
The play all climaxes quite sadly as Viola is neglectful to spend her life with Shakespeare, feeling that if she is with him, she fears she will stop him becoming ‘William Shakespeare the writer,’ that everyone wants and expects him to be, and the identity he can’t help but desire. They don’t end up together which results in a few emotional scenes towards the end of the play. It also starts and ends with the same striking image – Shakespeare at his writing desk with a candle by his side – finally blowing it out at the last second of the play. I love this ending and the metaphor it gives: even though the flame of the candle is fleeting, the play itself it something you would not forget in a hurry, and why would you want to? I already want to see it again!
Shakespeare in Love is currently on UK Tour