That most impressive of West End venues, the Noel Coward theatre, here plays host to Shakespeare in Love, with Lee Hall adapting Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay for the stage.
Big boots to fill some may think. Indeed such adaptations are always going to be problematic to those familiar with the original – with performances indelibly engraved on the mind in a way that is not comparable with repeated viewings of the same stage play. What is more, in the case of Shakespeare in Love, we are talking Oscar winning performances from the cream of international screen actors.
A not inconsiderable challenge then. But it should be noted that the creative team at the Noel Coward theatre is also blessed with an Oscar winning script; telling the story of how Shakespeare is helped in overcoming his writer’s block by falling in love with Viola De Lesseps, a wealthy merchant’s daughter, who aspires to join his acting company having in turn fallen in love with his verse. The ruse – knowingly recycled from an As You Like It or a Twelfth Night – is that to do so she must become a boy, because, of course, girls were not allowed to perform on stage during the Elizabethan and Jacobean age. In the backdrop is the draconian pairing of a father, who wants to marry Viola off to the repellent but socially superior Wessex, and a bureaucrat who wants to close the theatres.
Plenty of mileage there for a good yarn and a good yarn it is. Unfortunately, in the translation from film to stage, the result is a somewhat leaden and surprisingly joyless piece that lingers far longer than its welcome. Hall’s adaptation has some interesting additions – there’s a comedy dog and the character of Marlowe is developed – however, in shifting the focus of the drama from a romantic love story to a story about the love of great writing, he effectively removes the beating heart from the dramatic body.
If there was more chemistry between Tom Bateman’s blokeish Will and Lucy Briggs-Owen’s quirky Viola such a choice may not have mattered so much. However, Bateman seems more enamoured with David Oakes’ poised Marlowe, whilst despite oozing sex appeal in her opening scene, Briggs-Owen’s similarly fails to conjure any emotional sincerity. The rest of the cast fare little better, with the rather one dimensional performances on offer lacking any creative originality or vital spark.
Declan Donnellan, directing, lays on the gags – Will’s bumbling attempt to complete his sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day” must last at least five minutes. He also lays on the Elizabethan music, particularly when the characters have some Shakespeare to recite. However, such laboured efforts can’t undo the void at the centre of this disappointing production.
The answer to the question posed by Queen Elizabeth I – “Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?” – is in this case a very definite no.
The play runs from now until July 2015 at:
Noël Coward Theatre
St Martin’s Lane
Bookings can be made via the theatre website