Can an adaptation be too faithful? Directed with verve by Declan Donnellan across, up and down Nick Ormerod’s versatile Elizabethan theater set, the 28-strong cast of this grand screen-to-stage adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love” (backed by Disney Theatrical and Sonia Friedman Prods.) fills the stage with high-spirited comedy. Authenticity begins to pall at the drawn-out climax of the too-lengthy second half, and doubts creep in that anything substantial has been added to the movie. But as Tom Bateman’s unquenchably dynamic Shakespeare reasserts himself, you realize that while the show is hardly newfangled, it’s a big-hearted hit.
The script by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) doesn’t so much reimagine Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay (which won one of the movie’s seven Oscars) as compress and fillet it for the stage. But since many of the major characters have been retained, there are heaps of opportunities for cameo roles, all of which are taken with relish.
Abigail McKern shines as the nurse and, fresh from his Tony-nommed turn as Maria in the Globe’s “Twelfth Night,” Paul Chahidi returns to the Elizabethan era to make a delightfully exasperated mountain out of the molehill that is Henslowe, the theater owner who badly needs Shakespeare to stop indulging himself with writer’s block and give him an audience-pleasing, coffer-filling comedy, preferably with a dog since Queen Elizabeth (gruffly imperious Anna Carteret) is partial to them.
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Hall’s major change is the move to just off-center of a previously minor character, rival playwright Christopher Marlowe, played with wickedly low-voiced, lethal calm by David Oakes in his striking West End debut. Hall makes the Marlowe-Shakespeare rivalry a bromance that first comically then tragically ups the stakes in the central love story in which Shakespeare wants to marry wannabe actress Viola De Lesseps (the Gwyneth Paltrow role, played here by Lucy Briggs-Owen), who is already betrothed to Alastair Petrie’s dastardly Earl of Wessex.
The fact that the play’s running time is half an hour longer than the film is largely down to Hall and Donnellan’s understanding that theater, not film, is the best medium in which to tell a story about theater. Thus there’s a much higher concentration on exposing the insider mechanics of putting on a play, from auditions to rehearsals to the funding, presenting and producing of theater, all of which feels germane when performed live.
Less essential is Hall’s self-conscious addition of numerous gags based on Shakespeare’s later titles and famous lines — such as “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” — which amuses or irritates according to taste.
As in the film, Shakespeare is bowled over by the acting ability of Viola who, because women are not allowed on stage in Elizabethan England, arrives at the theater dressed as a boy, a device that mirrors “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare’s later comedy of love and pain. Since the plot hinges on Viola being able to play a love story truthfully to an audience, where better to be than in the audience watching her do just that?
This, unfortunately, exposes the production’s weakness. Although Briggs-Owen has the youthful energy to keep the disguise-plot working, she is not a natural comedienne — you can see the hand of the director in her wide-eyed double-takes. And her dying Juliet, performing Shakespeare’s real lines, is effortful and unconvincing. It’s not entirely her fault since Hall’s script has already hit emotional resolution prior to this sequence, thus making the death scene feel tacked-on as one of the play’s (too) many endings.
But for the rest of the evening Donnellan’s direction papers over any cracks. He fills the triple-height galleries of Ormerod’s Elizabethan theater set with cast members eavesdropping, adding concentration and focus to the remarkably fluid action. Paddy Cunneen is occasionally pushed to add an intrusive soundtrack to drum up tension, but elsewhere his superbly sung faux-Elizabethan score, replete with haunting countertenor, creates a perfectly judged mood that is further enhanced by Neil Austin’s lighting, delineating spaces and contrasting moods with unshowy aplomb.
The running costs on a show of this scale are likely to be eye-widening. In this relatively small playhouse it will need local raves to fill the house and recoup. But with Disney and Sonia Friedman producing so well-known a title, chances are high for a Gotham transfer.