Shakespeare in Love
Based on: the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Adapted for the stage by: Lee Hall
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Ghazal Azarbad and Charlie Gallant
Costume and Set Designer: Cory Sincennes
At: Bard on the Beach in Vancouver
Runs until: Sept. 18
You fall in love and the object of your affection is unquestionably out of reach due to forces beyond your control; likely unjust forces. This plot device has been used countless times; most famously, perhaps, in William Shakespeare’s star-crossed-lovers tragedy Romeo and Juliet. It is also the central narrative in the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, which opened Friday at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival.
There is a good chance you’ve seen the movie. The 1998 film won a slew of Oscars, including best picture. But seeing this story on the stage adds another layer of meaning. Because the most important love affair in this play is not really the one between Will Shakespeare (Charlie Gallant) and Viola de Lesseps (Ghazal Azarbad), the woman who becomes his muse. This play is very much about a love affair with the theatre. It’s a profession unavailable to Viola, who yearns for it, but is barred from the stage because she’s a woman.
As for Will, as the play opens, it’s a rocky relationship, because he has writer’s block.
The dramatization of this affliction in the play’s opening scene is inspired. As Will sits at his desk, uttering sentences aloud, he is surrounded by his would-be characters, oohing and ahhing and sighing and gasping as he tries out various permutations. (Even if these lines will become not a play, but Sonnet 18.) This lovely bit is indicative of what’s ahead: an imaginative, fun, smart, meta experience.
Directed by Daryl Cloran (artistic director of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, which first staged this show in 2017, a co-production with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre), it’s a leap for Bard – the first time the festival has mounted a non-Shakespeare play on its main stage.
But it’s a pretty safe one. To begin with, Mr. Cloran directed last summer’s monster hit, the Beatles-inspired As You Like It. And what Shakespeare fan can resist a story about the bard shaping what will become one of the most cited works in theatre history, inspired by his own (fictional) love affair? The script is mostly clever and loaded with Easter eggs, the actors bring it and the onstage energy leaves even the audience breathless.
Viola, daughter of a wealthy merchant, loves the theatre so much, she disguises herself as a boy to audition for a role in Shakespeare’s new play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. She gets the part – and the man; she and Will fall in love, even as she continues with the disguise (another frequent device in the canon). But Viola is engaged – to a fortuneless gentleman, Lord Wessex (Anton Lipovetsky) whom she does not love, but who can elevate the family’s status, if the union is approved by Queen Elizabeth (Jennifer Lines). (Then again, Will himself is married – unbeknownst to Viola.)
Mr. Gallant oozes charm and is a funny, flawed Will, engaged in a professional rivalry with Christopher Marlowe (Austin Eckert). Ms. Azarbad is transcendent, in a performance that can indeed teach the torches to burn bright.
Ms. Lines is a formidable Elizabeth I, upstaged perhaps only by her glorious costumes. Andrew McNee is a hoot as Richard Burbage and Kamyar Pazandeh makes a mark as Ned Alleyn, the professional actor who joins a troupe of misfits to stage Will’s new play.
Cory Sincennes, who designs the costumes and set, outdoes himself. His costumes are over-the-top fantastic and his set employs a revolving stage feature, used to perfection to expose the backstage antics and onstage action of Romeo and Juliet (in which the actual 2019 audience becomes the fictional late 16th century audience).
You can see glimpses of the actual landscape in the background, one of the best things about Bard, and on opening night, the first summer’s day, holy moly did we ever get a show of Vancouver at sunset. (With apologies to Juliet.)
There is a set piece worth noting toward the end of the first act – a chaotic, uproarious duel that demands precision timing and boundless energy from the cast. It’s impressive not just for its show-offy staging and spectacle; the scene cleverly reflects the turning point in Romeo and Juliet, when the play lurches from what could be a comedy to a tragedy with the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt – and their dire implications.
There is also a dog in the show, received enthusiastically by the audience. Call me a monster, but I felt the dog bit was cheap and unnecessary – even with the plot payoff toward the end. And speaking of cheap and unnecessary, there is an ongoing bit with a character who stutters that is meant to be funny and ultimately redemptive, but just made me extremely uncomfortable and devalued the show’s intelligence (and the audience’s).
There are so many excellent lines and ideas in Shakespeare in Love, but the central question is reserved for the queen: “Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?”
Yes, it can. I’m not sure Shakespeare in Love achieves that, but you have such a good time, you barely notice, and you are willing to forgive its modest flaws.