Review Roundup: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE in the West End

By: Jul. 23, 2014
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Shakespeare in Love is celebrating its world premiere at the Noël Coward Theatre tonight, 23 July 2014, bringing together one of the largest companies ever assembled -- 28 actors and musicians, plus two dogs -- for a play in the West End.

The cast features Ian Bartholomew (Tilney), Tom Bateman (Will Shakespeare), Tony Bell (Ralph), Lucy Briggs-Owen (Viola De Lesseps), Anna Carteret (Queen Elizabeth), Paul Chahidi (Henslowe), David Ganly (Burbage), Richard Howard (Sir Robert De Lesseps), Harry Jardine (Sam), Abigail McKern(Nurse), David Oakes (Marlowe), Patrick Osborne (Mr Wabash), Alistair Petrie (Wessex), Doug Rao (Ned Alleyn), Ferdy Roberts (Fennyman) and Colin Ryan (John Webster).

Produced by Disney and Sonia Friedman Productions and based on the Academy Award-winning screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love has been adapted for the stage by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot). The new play is directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod (Cheek by Jowl).

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: put "Shakespeare in Love" onstage, especially in the town where Shakespeare's work was first produced, is to beard the bard in his den...Mr. Donnellan and Mr. Ormerod employ stratagems they have used in their own first-rate Shakespeare interpretations for their Cheek by Jowl troupe...As in many of those productions, their "Shakespeare in Love" begins with the entire, large (and charmingly flexible) ensemble gathered onstage, presented as the raw material out of which theatrical magic is to be woven. But once the performers start speaking, a sense of the ersatz sets in. The twee factor that was always lurking in the movie advances front and center...The production has been blessed in its central lovers, embodied by the equally comely Mr. Bateman and Ms. Briggs-Owen with plenty of bona fide passion. But if the movie canters, the play feels like it's skipping along in slow motion, and the sight of grown-ups skipping should never be lingered upon.

Paul Taylor, The Independent: Screen to stage transfers are so frequent and mostly catchpenny and cynical that the prospect of yet another tends to fill a critic's heart with dread. But here there's the elating sense that the material -- with its rivalry between two public playhouses echoing the feud between the Montagues and Capulets -- is revelling in it natural element in the theatre. And the smartest move made by the producers was to hire director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, the world-renowned Cheek By Jowl team whose profound understanding of Shakespearean drama (its dazzling fluidity; its blithe refusal to respect the "rules" of genre; its mood-mingling suppleness) enriches a production that is filled with moments of sheer stage poetry as well as good-natured, effervescent fun...There's sizzling chemistry between Tom Bateman (a more dashing and impetuously open-hearted Shakespeare than the sneakier Joseph Fiennes) and Lucy Briggs-Owen who is feistier and more forthright than Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola de Lesseps...

The Telegraph: The Oscar-laden movie, with its wonderfully witty script by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, was terrific, but in Lee Hall's delightful stage adaptation the piece seems to have found its true home. It's funny, often genuinely moving and generates a glow you could warm your hands by. You can feel the audience getting behind the piece from the start, and by the end this inventive and touching comedy seems like a joyous celebration of the possibilities of theatre itself...There is a real sense of ensemble and shared enjoyment about the acting company...This is the best British comedy since One Man, Two Guvnors and deserves equal success.

Michael Coveney, WhatsOnStage: Yet another film adapted for the stage? But in this instance the case for the defence was submitted well in advance of the opening: John Madden's Oscar-winning 1998 film, scripted by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, really belonged in the theatre in the first place!...Spirited is the only word for Briggs-Owen's Viola. She and Bateman's hunky, good-looking Will (is that right, do you think?), make an attractive pairing at the centre of Donnellan's ensemble. David Ganlyhuffs and puffs as Richard Burbage (not such a great actor after all, then), Abigail McKern skitters about as a rosy-cheeked Nurse and Colin Ryan stutters gloriously into life as John Webster.

Leslie Felperin, The Hollywood Reporter: It's that electric tension between Elizabethan and contemporary elements which gives this production its distinctive crackle in the hands of director Declan Donnellan and his crew...Donnellan plays ceaselessly with perspective, especially during the climactic performance of Romeo and Juliet, which keeps reversing the location of the fourth wall, so the audience can watch the antics both on stage and backstage all at once...It all snaps together with the original screenplay's literary meta-games, which suddenly get that wee bit more meta from being performed in a theater instead of on film...Bateman and Briggs-Owen take complete ownership of the lead roles, and far outshine Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in the film version.

David Benedict, Variety: 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" 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.

Alexandra Coghlan, t takes a bold team to rework a film that won Oscars not only for Best Picture but also for Best Original Screenplay, but then this show really does have the best...The result is energetic, even more densely allusive than Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's original, and maybe even funnier...It's a gift for a film about the magic of theatre to find itself relocated to an actual theatre, and Donnellan is quick to catch this energy. The set is fleshed out by a company of actors and musicians, who cluster round the action -- Shakespeare's own actors, but also his characters-to-come, waiting in the wings of his theatre for their cue.

Quentin Letts, Daily Mail: You do not entirely need to be a Shakespeare fan to love this stage version of the 1998 Oscar-hauling film, but a familiarity with Romeo And Juliet certainly comes in handy.With that one caveat, director Declan Donnellan's show is a swooning, skittish delight, all the merrier for containing no top-flight stars. With a cast of 28 humans and one rather brilliant dog called Spot (played by a labradoodle called Barney), perhaps the producers ran out of biscuits for big names.

Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard: The production begins energetically but sometimes seems encumbered by its lavishness, losing momentum in its second half, and the knowing cleverness of the writing makes the play feel like an anthology of in-jokes and familiar quotations. Yet there are rich laughs, flickers of mischief and peachy spurts of surrealism. A few heavy-handed moments aside, Shakespeare in Love has a fizzy, infectious exuberance.

Sarah Hemming, Financial Times: It's rather laboured in places and some of the jokes are heavy-handed or overworked. But this is a joyous, poignant show, delivered by a crack ensemble and peppered with enjoyable performances: notably David Oakes as an impish Marlowe and Anna Carteret as a canny Elizabeth I. She gets her wish: a play that shows the nature of love. But even greater here is the passion for the warm, bubbling humanity of the artform itself.

Michael Billington, The Guardian: it is the masterly direction and design by the Cheek By Jowl team of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod that vindicates the decision to adapt the piece for the stage. The set has the galleried shape of an Elizabethan playhouse and, in a clever transformation that has echoes of Noises Off, we get a backstage point-of-view of the climactic Romeo and Juliet. Paddy Cuneen's music also has the seductiveness of Renaissance dance and there is, unbelievably, a company of 28 actors.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

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