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Luke Humphrey plays Will Shakespeare with Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps in the Stratford Festival’s Shakespeare in Love.

David Hou

2 out of 4 stars

Shakespeare in Love
Written by
Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard, Lee Hall
Directed by
Declan Donnellan
Luke Humphrey and Shannon Taylor
Stratford Festival

Hundreds of thousands make the pilgrimage to the Stratford Festival each year for the love of Shakespeare. Will they for Shakespeare in Love?

Commercial film-to-stage adaptations are not exactly the type of work that this classics-oriented company is known for – and yet, in truth, Shakespeare has always been part art, part racket in Stratford, Ont.

You can come for Macbeth followed by a serious lecture on the psychology of terror – or you can secretly see A Chorus Line and just pick up a souvenir Macbeth bow tie in the gift shop on your way home.

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So why not the North American premiere of this West End stage adaptation of an Oscar-winning comedy? I, for one, was eager for a light-hearted lark and a bit of romance at the end of a long opening week.

Unfortunately, director Declan Donnellan's busy, breathless production delivered too little of either on Saturday night. He overcooks the comedy and underdoes the passion – making a Michelin-star cast look like McDonald's in the process.

Writer Lee Hall's adaptation of the film opens theatrically enough with Will Shakespeare (Luke Humphrey) labouring over a sonnet – while the rest of the company of actors hover around him awaiting each new word, representing the burden of expectations. "Shall," he starts, confidently. Then, less so, "I." Then, after a very long pause, "com – pare?"

The scene is sold by the excellent leading man Humphrey – tremendously charming as a young actor-turned-playwright whose success is mainly due to swagger for the moment, stuck in the shadow of his frenemy Kit Marlowe (Saamer Usmani).

Meanwhile, theatre impresario Henslowe (Stephen Ouimette) is in desperate need of a new play, pursued by a brutish moneylender named Fennyman (Tom McCamus).

Shakespeare has promised Henslowe a new comedy featuring pirates and a dog – tentative title, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. The only problem is that the blocked playwright has also promised the same to a rival theatre.

While theatre is causing trouble for those who work in it, it is helping Viola de Lesseps (Shannon Taylor), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, escape her own fate as a smart woman waiting to be married off to the weaselly Lord Wessex (Rylan Wilkie). We find her at court alongside Elizabeth I (a sarcastic Sarah Orenstein), mouthing the words to a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona wistfully.

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Wishing she could be a player, but banned, like all women, from the profession, Viola disguises herself as a man named Thomas Kent to audition for her favourite up-and-coming playwright: William Shakespeare.

Upon hearing Kent speak his verse, Shakespeare has found his Romeo. After following him back to his house and stumbling upon Viola, he has found his muse to complete Romeo and Juliet. But are they star-crossed lovers as well?

Featuring unbelievable disguises and playing fast and loose with historical fact, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's screenplay for the original 1998 film was definitely in the spirit of Shakespeare. Many of its charms remain in Hall's adaptation – such as the clever integration of well-known lines and gentle pokes at the playwright's plots. "Verona again?" Viola's nurse (Karen Robinson) says when she hears about the plot of Romeo and Juliet.

What's unfortunate is that under Donnellan's direction, the theatre world is depicted with little apparent love. With plenty of Stratford actors and directors to send up, we instead get flat, generic types. It would also be fun to see a bit of what made Ned Alleyn (Brad Hodder) or Richard Burbage (Steve Ross) such popular actors in their time; what we get, instead, from these normally talented, funny actors is vanity signified by long hair and bombast signified by a booming voice.

As Fennyman, McCamus is the notable exception – imbuing the moneyman who becomes an amateur actor with surprising sensitivity; in his performance, we see glimpses of a loving, laugh-filled version of this show.

The scene in which Shakespeare and Kent take a boat back to Viola's house gives you a good idea of what's been lost from the screen to the stage. In the film, Shakespeare goes too far in describing Viola's beauty – talking about her bosom and embarrassing the disguised woman.

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Here, the same joke is accompanied by the playwright madly groping Kent/Viola's chest – crass physical comedy taking away from character comedy (and leaving logic behind).

On film, that same scene ends with a delightful button – the boatman (Mike Nadajewski) pulling out a manuscript and saying to Shakespeare, who has just realized Thomas and Viola are the same, "Strangely enough, I'm a bit of a writer myself … "

In Donnellan's staging, Shakespeare takes the boatman's book, looks at it disdainfully and then throws it away, a sound effect telling us it has landed in the water. A sly throwaway joke is turned into a mean one that distracts from the narrative and makes us dislike our hero.

The romance between Shakespeare and Viola is also seriously undermined by Donnellan having the cast behave like a track-and-field team. Nick Ormerod has designed a three-level set that seems partly inspired by Elizabethan playhouses, partly by rock musicals that feature actors singing along catwalks. Actors are forever running from one floor to the next and along elevated platforms. No surprise, there's little opportunity for honest connection.

During the metatheatrical performance of Romeo and Juliet that ends both the film and the play, Shakespeare and Viola play those title characters – and there's a double narrative taking place. Humphrey does manage to wring emotion from his lines, standing still, centre stage, superimposing Shakespeare's sadness on Romeo's fears. But Taylor, pointlessly sprinting back and forth above him, does well to simply get the lines out.

What Taylor does make us feel is Viola's love of the stage and acting. That's surprisingly absent from the rest of the proceeding. Well, maybe not so surprising, actually, given this is a stage production that wants to borrow the success of a film rather than create its own.

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