Citadel season opener, Shakespeare in Love, captivates and transcends
In the first act, our Shakespeare confides in the urbane Christopher Marlow (just one of this play’s many historical figures), promising that his show will contain all the big tropes—romance, laughter, mistaken identity, gender bending and, of course, love.
This romp doesn’t fail to deliver on any of those.
At the outset, our eponymous playwright is mired in that viscous swamp known as “writer’s block,” unable to find the words (or the inspiration) to complete his upcoming comedy: Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. An unfortunate title, yes, but one that we all know will surely be rectified by curtain call.
Enter Viola, a wealthy merchant’s daughter with theatrical aspirations and a soft spot for the Bard. She’s been saddled with a repellent (albeit wealthy) fiancé; in between loveless courting rituals, she disguises herself as a man and doubles as both Shakespeare’s male lead and muse.
Do they fall in love? Of course they do. Is there a sudden falling out in the second act, followed by a last-minute, show-saving reconciliation? Indeed. Is it a little trite for modern audiences? Probably, yes. But then again, this is Shakespeare.
The supporting players (many taking on dual roles in this ambitious production) are game with the material, approaching the script with an expert timing that make for the biggest laughs in the show. Citadel regular John Ullyatt channels the late John Inman in bringing a prissy flair to the power-mad Tilney; Sarah Constible transcends expectations offering us something topical in the role of Queen Elizabeth I.
While the players are truly fabulous, the real triumph here is in the production design. Cory Sincennes’ set is a marvel; a rotating portal that allows the story to jump between the dozen or so settings that would otherwise mean a death sentence for a stage play.
A film-to-stage production that captures both the magic of the original while offering us something fresh is a daunting task, one that Shakespeare in Love succeeds at.
Lee Hall, the writer, does an excellent job at trimming the fat. However, it’s occasionally burdened by loyalty to the source material: an excellent film, but a product of the ‘90s, to be sure.
For instance, the gender bending jokes fall flat when—nearly 20 years after premiering on screen—droves of people now identify as transgender. Jolly good, but it does date the piece when a lot of the humour is derived from men pretending to be women, and vice versa.
Moreover, the near-constant esoteric jokes that riff on the time period and audience’s knowledge of Shakespeare are tiresome. We get it—the play isn’t called Romeo and Ethel; there’s a balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet too; Shakespeare is now famous.
Tee-bloody-hee. I’ll accept that I am in a minority on this one. Judging by the steady laughter and applause throughout, audiences no-doubt love being told they’re smart enough to be in on the joke, despite the fact that one needs but a cursory knowledge of the Bard in order to laugh along with the scholars.
But that’s okay—you don’t need to wield an English degree to appreciate Shakespeare, or any theatre, for that matter. If well-crafted, theatre should (at the end of the day) elevate an audience. It’s okay to find some stuff a bit drab, while gravitating toward the lighthearted comedies that don’t force you to think too much.
Escapism is not a sin (does anybody really enjoy The Tempest?).
There’s a line repeated multiple times throughout by the Queen —“We do like a dog.” While we all laugh that someone of such education and esteem as Elizabeth I would be drawn to something so simple as a dog appearing onstage (there wasn’t a person who didn’t applaud whenever Tenacious Turtle, the greyhound turned actor, made his appearance).
No matter how smart we like to think we are, we’re all just looking to be entertained.
Shakespeare in Love does this beautifully. Especially the parts with the dog.