TV Review: ‘Will,’ TNT’s Punk Rock Take on William Shakespeare

TV Review: 'Will' Imagines Shakespeare With
TNT

The TNT drama about a younger, sexier Bard is composed of nonsensical creative decisions and jarring anachronisms — but at least it’s having a good time

The oddest assumption “Will” makes is in assuming that William Shakespeare, the OG of the English language, needs the patina of punk rock to make him cool. I’m no expert on cool, but haven’t we all trod this ground many times before? The executive producer and writer of the pilot, Craig Pearce, wrote the screenplay for “Romeo + Juliet,” along with director Baz Luhrmann and, of course, the Bard himself. It’s been over 20 years since that film and “Shakespeare in Love”; about a decade since teen movies “She’s the Man” and “Deliver Us From Eva” applied the Shakespeare formula to high school. To belabor the point: Joss Whedon’s black-and-white, modern-day “Much Ado About Nothing” is just five years old, 2014’s “The Hollow Crown” on BBC cast well-known heartthrobs like Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead roles, and for pete’s sake, “The Lion King” is based on “Hamlet.”

But despite all of this thoroughly modern Shakespeare, “Will” is here — and determined, with comical intensity, to demonstrate just how rad Willy Shakes and the Elizabethan era can be. The result is a wildly anachronistic historical drama with tons of flair, albeit flair that is neither original nor meaningful. In its defense, however, it manages to be fun — eventually. The pilot, written by Pearce and directed by executive producer Shekhar Kapur, is a plodding, overwrought mess that gives Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) a Catholic subplot, a tortured love interest, and prompt theatrical success. It also, quite painfully, places him in a Renaissance pub’s “rap battle,” as if “Will” is a trying-too-hard English teacher informing you that Shakespeare was the original hip-hop artist of the streets.

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It might just fly if “Will” was a little less self-serious. From the very first frame, Will wants to become Shakespeare; there is no process of discovering his own talents as he discovers what place the world might have for him. At times a scene will open on him searching for the right line of verse for the occasion, and half the time he says word for word exactly the lines that will become canon. Perhaps Shakespeare was just this irritatingly composed, but this effortless writing process is less fun to watch than the arc of episodes 3 and 4, when he realizes he has no idea how to break a story — and is just one playwright among many, trying to earn enough money for rent. Once “Will” settles into the day-to-day drama of producing something worth reading, it’s a lot more fun to watch.

It does not help that “Will” is saturated with a very particular, very jarring aesthetic. The show draws from, apparently, films like “A Knight’s Tale” and the 1978 film “Jubilee” to link London’s punk rock fury and decadence with the milieu of Renaissance theatre. The audience for “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” Will’s first real play, is a raucous crowd of tattooed hooligans with fierce eyeliner game. Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood), an adorably entitled but talentless leading man, strolls into one scene in the pilot wearing a motorcycle jacket trimmed with leopard print lapels; the walls in their dingy alleyway are covered with mass-produced color posters. And for a country that wouldn’t establish a foothold in India until 1612, there are an awful lot of colorful ethnic fabrics cladding the hand-to-mouth peasants of the street. This whirlwind of culture offers some fascinating opportunities for a more complex history of Britain than is normally afforded onscreen — for example, several of the Londoners are black, because the first black communities in England date back to the Tudor era, and of course Shakespeare wrote black characters into his plays. (She doesn’t appear in the first episodes released to critics, but Jasmin Savoy Brown has a regular role as the “Dark Lady” of Will’s sonnets.) But these strokes of brilliance get lost in the muddle. It’s hard to tell the fantasy from the historical complexity, and as a result “Will” really stretches the imagination, even when it’s saying something true. 

And honestly, “Will” has enough bells and whistles as it is. As he keeps writing, Will becomes closer to Kit Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), who in this imagining is a gay orgy host and opium smoker — erratic and mercurial and occasionally kissing Will just for the heck of it. But Will is caught up in illicit desire for the educated daughter of his erstwhile patron, James Burbage (Colm Meany) — the pretty Alice (Olivia DeJonge), who discovers early on that Will’s left a wife and three kids in his village.

In the show’s most baffling creative decision, much of the storytelling is devoted to Will’s secret Catholicism. By the third episode, “Will” routinely cuts from the main action to show yet another Catholic being gruesomely tortured by Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner), a professional persecutor for the Queen. The show cuts away from him only to return to Will clutching his rosary while haunted by the ghost of his father. (His father, like Hamlet’s, is a bit of a pill, always yammering on about duty.) It’s hard to square Will’s teeth-gnashing sense of Catholic duty with the freewheeling theater kid he is otherwise.

There are moments of surprisingly nimble comedy — like when Alice has to meet with a potential suitor and his nearly-deaf mother has to shout her advice about fertility across the room, or when Richard learns exactly one line of acting advice and starts using it as a pick-up line. There are also scenes of truly poignant tragedy, such as when a young street rat with a mullet (Lukas Rolfe) has to hide under his sister’s bed while she services a john. But it is bogged down by torture, ghosts, secret congregations, sex parties, and improbable fashion, making for a herky-jerky tonal trip through an unfamiliar time.

All this material is part of the effort to show where Shakespeare got the material to become Shakespeare, and some of it, at least, is quite valid. But Shakespeare the man wasn’t a romantic combination of all of his heroes’ and villains’ plotlines, nor was his life composed of the atmospheres of each of his comedies and tragedies. Like all our great writers, he was above all else an incisive observer of human nature. But our Will, like “Will,” is a bit naive and artless, which only serves to make the flashes of brilliant poetry seem terribly out of place. Lead Davidson, to his credit, plays every note of his character with sincere intensity, and he certainly looks the part of the visionary young poet. But it frequently seems as if the show is convinced it is telling us something new and vital, when it has in fact taken Joseph Fiennes’ lovelorn Will Shakespeare, added Catholic guilt and sex parties, and plopped it into a never-ending punk concert. “Will” could stand to relax a little; it might find it has more fun that way.

TV Review: 'Will,' TNT's Punk Rock Take on William Shakespeare

Drama, X episodes (4 reviewed): TNT, Mon. July 10, 9 p.m. 60 min.

Crew

Executive producers, Craig Pearce, Shekhar Kapur, Alison Owen, Debra Hayward, Vince Gerardis, Howard Braunstein, Louise Rosager

Cast

Laurie Davidson, Olivia DeJonge, Ewen Bremner, Colm Meaney, Mattias Inwood, Jamie Campbell Bower, William Houston, Lukas Rolfe, Max Bennett, Jasmin Savoy Brown

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  1. msimon313 says:

    The short hair on women and sleeveless dresses bug me to no end and I am hardly a purist.

  2. Sharon Graham says:

    As a long-time Shakespeare aficionado, I love this show. Some of the directorial choices are indeed jarring, but so can Hamlet set in WW I, or Loves Labours Lost set in the roaring 20’s, both of which I’ve seen. I’m 68 years young and am open to creative interpretation to take me out of my comfort zone. Besides, the writing, beautiful beautiful writing (for the most part), in this show is a million miles higher than the usual junk dialogue we get slimed with nowadays. And if a few punk tats and nose rings get the younger generation into Shakespeare, I’m not going to complain.

  3. D. Buzz says:

    The show is dreadful. Wasn’t sure just how much I disliked it until I suffered all “10” episodes. The final sequence was a direct steal from the brilliant Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love. So much of it too freely borrowed from other sources such as, Baz Luhrman, A Knight’s Tale. Some actors who are wonderful actors in other projects chewed the scenery in this — completely the director’s fault. I pray that young people who are not familiar with the actual history don’t mistake this for fact. And, not at all pleasurable to watch.

  4. Wired for Wisdom too says:

    Clearly the reviewer and audience members who are not keen on this production really don’t understand ad are completely ignorant to the the culture of Shakespeare theater since Shakespeare times itself!
    Shakespeare is perfectly fine being viewed in its own time period, what contemporary viewers would imagine it looked and sounded like but it’s meant to be seen and produced in contemporary versions as well. I’m not going to get into why that is. Take a class. Read about it yourself. Educate yourself instead of just ripping apart things you don’t understand.
    What’s astonishing is this review is written by an entertainment writer in a reputable source like Variety and yet, the reviewer has NO CLUE! ugh! Face palm!
    This is a perfect version of Shakespeare that shows what it might have been like with a dramatic flair. Anyone who thinks Shakespeare must have been a quiet hermit has never seen a Shakespeare play or read anything about his life. This show makes his existence more tangible and accessible to contemporary life. Is this exactly what happened, definitely not, but a lot of the drama and excitement can likely be scaled from then, to now.
    The purpose is to grab you and make you think about the greatest playwright that ever lived! A man who changed the English (dominant) language! Who gave us permission to “play” with the language and with “story” on stage (on screen now) to express our selves in dramatic ways that use precise language in ways Greek theater never did achieve!
    This production makes the idea of Will Shakespeare a reality and does a juicy job of it.
    Also, did this writer know anything about Shakespeare’s friend, the famous, Christopher Marlowe? Among many things, he was considered a rockstar back then and he was killed by a random young man who stabbed him. If THAT truth doesn’t have a passionate untold story behind it from the late 1500’s, I don’t know what does.

    • Sharon Graham says:

      I absolutely agree. The writer of this article – in Variety, yet – obviously does not have much of a background in Shakespeare, nor an understanding of his life, talent, worldview, or times.

  5. Monique says:

    Totally enjoyed te series and you will too if you’re not prone to take historical dramas too seriously. It’s bright, loud and fun. The cast was well chosen and they did a brilliant job of bringing their characters to life. I really hope they make a season 2.

  6. Jamie says:

    Absolutely loving the show if only to spot the lines, quotes, and which play are we on now. In addition it keeps sending me to Google not only to brush up on my Shakespeare but the real people who surrounded him during the era.

  7. mantloko says:

    THE SHOW IS UTTER RUBBISH

  8. Salene says:

    I have enjoyed watching this series since far. I do not understand why some people have to be so serious about how factual it has to be. It it just a show that has been put out there for entertainment. If you like it..keep watching. If not… why try and ruin it for others. Maybe the fact that it is not so doom and gloom and it has thrown in the twist of modernist it makes it more “watchable” as just entertainment. Who wants to feel like it’s more of a documentary. It’s not.

  9. Amanda says:

    This article perfectly expresses my thoughts on this show. I’m so over the trend of people doing a “period” drama, and then throwing in modern music and ’90s prom dresses. It jars the audience right out of the historical time we are supposed to be escaping to and just makes a confusing mess. And don’t get me started on the “rap battle.” That might be the lamest thing I’ve seen all year, but at least I got a good laugh out of it. The beauty of Shakespeare’s language is what has gained him fans throughout the centuries, and will continue to do so in the future. He doesn’t need any help from The Clash.

  10. Joe Feliciano says:

    i’m a huge fan of shakespeare. i’ve read many a biography on him (my favourite being Will in the World by stephen greenblatt), as well as more than a few analyses and historical perspectives on the playwright, his works and his world, by isaac asimov, and have studied elizabethan theatre history extensively. i have professionally produced, directed and/or have acted in many of his plays. i have studied The Folio Technique for over a decade with two internationally celebrated actors/teachers. i have studied not only his well known works, but, rarely produced plays such as Cymbeline, and Timon of Athens. i short, i adore shakespeare.

    with that being said, i came up in the late 70s and early 80s and am an enormous fan of punk rock and its esthetic. from my research and experience, Will captures the energy, danger, and vibrancy of shakespeare’s london. its use of music, costumes, make-up and casting is immediate, messy, refined, visceral, and illuminating. oh, and very funny. all of which shakespeare would have loved.

  11. JS says:

    Why can’t they trust the audience for historical drama? Do they really think some anachronistic punk hair & grunge will draw in the ravers? Or make Will S cooler? This could have been a great show if it was more Wolf Hall and less Moulin Rouge.

  12. ALS says:

    In a word, “unwatchable”.

  13. Syl says:

    Having put up with West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Kiss Me Kate and The Lion King, this just took things too far with little or no redeeming social value. An anachronistic mess.

  14. T.W.S.S. says:

    “Deliver Us From Eva” wasn’t set in high school, but “10 Things I Hate About You” was.

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