BWW Review: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE's Enchanting Return To The Fugard Theatre
Eric Abraham's award-winning production of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is back at the Fugard Theatre by popular demand. Its highly anticipated return comes after a sold-out run at the end of 2017 and this latest production boasts a handful of fresh cast members as well as a new lead actor. While one might sometimes associate Shakespeare with languid lines of prose and a faint understanding of Early Modern English, there is nothing idle about this captivating romantic comedy.
Based on the 1998 film of the same name, we are introduced to a bard with writer's block as William Shakespeare struggles in writing the first lines of Sonnet 18. Confiding in his contemporary, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, Shakespeare claims he cannot finish a new play without a muse. Inspiration soon comes in the form of the charismatic Viola, whose strong admiration of the playwright leads her to auditioning for his play disguised as a man. With equal doses comedy and tragedy, the story goes on to combine all that is great about Shakespeare's writing, including swapped gender roles, meta-theatrics, and even a dog!
Daniel Mpilo Richards takes up the role from Dylan Edy as William Shakespeare and breathes modern life into a character many can only visualize from Elizabethan portraits. Seeing the famous writer portrayed with an immense spectrum of physical and emotional depth - as Richards skillfully does - lends the audience to truly believe in this romanticized depiction of the poet. Playing opposite him as the love interest, Roxane Hayward reprises her role as Viola de Lesseps. Hayward adds a playfulness to the role coupled with an authentic yearning for and love of the theater; she is convincing throughout as the young, idealistic lady. The chemistry between these two is so palatable that one is invested in their story from their first encounter.
Will and Viola's love affair is upheld by a strong company of supporting actors. Made up of less than 20, each ensemble member brings unique characterizations to their roles that add to the ambience of the two and a half hour spectacle. While some may blend in a bit too well with the simplistic background and end up being forgettable, this is a strength when it comes to busier scenes and attention is needed elsewhere. There is also a smoothness that comes when multiple cast members are on stage, where every move and interaction appears clearly thought-out and polished.
Aside from the lead actors, particular stand-outs in the cast include that of Queen Elizabeth (Robyn Scott), Lord Wessex (Jason K. Ralph) and Henslowe (Darron Araujo). Scott's portrayal of the Queen is accentuated by her lavish costuming and styling, but it is her abrasive characterization of the monarch that steals the scenes - and even makes her somewhat likeable. Ralph plays Viola's detestable betrothed and plays him with such an abhorrent self-righteousness that Viola's tremors penetrate the fourth wall whenever he arrives unannounced. Ralph's stark contrast with Richards' charm plays off well, which further sweeps one up in the emotions of the plot's love affair. Putting the "comedy" in this romantic comedy, Araujo adds a great physicality and whimsy to the mousey Henslowe character that makes his arrival on stage a delight. He is upheld by a rag-tag group of locals and wannabe actors whose comic timing is some of the best, and one almost wishes Shakespeare's first draft of the play - Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter - would come to fruition.
Mirroring its previous run, the production's set is one of the simpler designs that the Fugard has seen. Consisting of a two-leveled plain wooden surrounding, set designer Paul Wills has done an excellent job of combining subtle scenic accents with a clean lighting design to transport one from the pub, to Viola's balcony, to the theatre, and back again. The simplicity of the set is also complemented by the highly detailed and muted-toned costuming choices. Overall the production stands testament to the fact that with a strong cast and clever crew to support it, uncomplicated is sometimes the better way to go.
Even with speckles of fresh faces and a new lead, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE radiates with a charm that keeps one invested from the opening drum beat to the closing line. Moving from a highly energetic first act to a slightly slower second act, this production transports you to 16th century England where it can't be helped but to cheer on young love, jeer at whomever gets in the way, end in hysterics at theatrical antics, and awww at a canine cameo.
Photo credit: Claude Barnardo
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE will run until 6 October from Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm with a 3pm matinee on Saturdays. There will be Sunday matinee performances at 3pm on 16, 23 and 30 September. Tickets from R150 to R350 can be booked through the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or through the Fugard Theatre's website at www.thefugard.com.