Witty rework of the Bard in MTC’s newest blockbuster Shakespeare In Love

This plays got it all. At the Australian premiere of the play adaptation of the 1998 Oscar-winning Film, Shakespeare In Love you gain access to the height of the English literary canon, men in tights, a stunning set evoking London c. 1589 and her stages, lavish sets with historic costumes worked on for up to 12 months, an Elizabeth I to remember, and a small performing dog. Did I say dog? Yep, a tiny terrier who touches the heart while jerking the laugh lines to our jaws, who flits hither and thither across the boards of this upturned stage platform which voluminously fills up the base of the performing space. This show is imagination writ large.

Presented by Melbourne Theatre Company with direction from blockbuster maker extraordinaire Simon Phillips (Ladies In Black, Muriel’s Wedding, The Musical, MTC’s 2018 triumph Twelfth Night, and 2017’s cinematic Macbeth), you anticipate  gaiety and celebration, a bottomless budget and expert application resulting in luxuriant sets and costuming, with flourish, flair, decadence, and decoration.

MTC SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE photo Jeff Busby_1029 Will The Writer

Michael Wahr as Will Shakespeare, jobbing player turned playwright.

You get this and more. Great acting, deeply  traditionally-trained cast, great lines, good physical enervation, a stunning balance of the masculine with the feminine, romance, decadence, the mob, and bawdy. There’s much to hold your eye. 

A cast of 14 with 80 costumes, this script an adaptation of famed UK playwright Tom Stoppard from Marc Norman’s idea of the play about a writer with writer’s block who falls in love with an unattainable woman above his class. It’s a postmodern pastiche of all that is Shakespearean while interweaving excerpts from the Bard’s famous tragic romance Romeo And Juliet into the live plot.  This rendition is in the mirthful, loving spirit of Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre and would own his stamp of approval.

It is also a play about the business of writing and theatre-as-business which Shakespeare was immersed in, and includes famed characters and writers such as decadent homosexual Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe and the proprietal Richard Burbage. Northern English adaptor Lee Hall declares his work is all about invention- coming up with stories on the page and the ones we play in life, matching Shakespeare’s own writing which declares: 

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts

(Jacques, As You Like It)

MTC SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE photo Jeff Busby_1604 Players

Gabriela Tylesova’s superb set rendition of the actor’s space.

Redolent of the pop up stage platforms of medieval street theatre (likely the site of young Will’s first observed public theatre), Gabriela Tylesova has created a masterpiece of set and costume design as performance of the Elizabethan imaginary. Your jaw will drop as you salivate over colour, fabric, pattern, material, and layers and layers of seeming luxury.

Leads Michael Wahr as successful stage man Will with his female counterpart Claire van der Boom as Viola de Lesseps are charmed lovers and bring strong performance and speech to their roles. Looking the part, you will love to see their flirting and blooming amorousness culminate in early passion and new-love. Laurence Boxhall captures as ready reminder of the prohibition of women on the Elizabethan stage, as the nubile, silent blonde youth who would have played the Juliets. Aljin Abella is remarkable as class clown and upcoming co-playwright, John Webster. Luke Arnold captures the Marlovian spirit as Kit with his bragodoccio, boots and capes while Francis Greenslade as Lord Tilney is suitably foppish and foolish as aristocratic fool. 

MTC SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE photo Jeff Busby_1123 Regina Elizabeth I

Deidre Rubenstein holding court as Elizabeth I of England.

With live musical and sung interludes from cast and Andrew Kroenert(a fashion Phillips employs with MTC), the atmosphere of real, old English theatrical experience is fully fleshed for us and court and aristocratic dances by Andrew Hallworth are notable. Both combined with Tylesova’s dense costuming, they present unforgettable viewing. 

Phillips loves to entertain, not merely educate, and lives up to his reputation as man of the theatre who isn’t afraid to pepper the exuberance of pop culture over high art. Then there is Daisy. A darting flash of fur and vigor, she adds the elemental laughs once found in the Inn Yard stages, or down by the river in the open playhouses beside the rough entertainments of cockpits and bear-baiting. She is the visual punchline which follows the drama and the romance. 

MTC SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE photo Jeff Busby_1111 Daisy the dog

Spot (Daisy) the Elizabethan player.

This production is unmissable as theatre-as-event and recreates these romantic spaces in our mind and in literary history.

As it was in the day- yours for the price of a seat. 

– Sarah Wallace

is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, Melbourne.  A performing arts and English literature graduate of VCA, UOM and Deakin, she has a flair for bold, non-traditional performance platforms. An active contributor to The Melbourne Shakespeare Society, on the street, or in the box seat, she is always looking for quality works that push the envelope.

Shakespeare In Love shows 15 July – 17 August, 6.30pm Monday-Tuesday, 8pm Tuesday- Saturday, 1/2pm Wednesdays/Saturdays (145 mins with interval) at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne. Buy tickets here.

Venues are accessible with Accessible Showings. Contains sexual references, mild violence.

Disclosure: The Plus Ones were guests of Melbourne Theatre Company. 

Images: Jeff Busby.