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Shakespeare in Love theatre review (Playhouse, Melbourne)

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Towards the end of Shakespeare in Love, Melbourne Theatre Company’s major 2019 production, the play returns to an image of Shakespeare sitting and writing at his desk, illuminated by candlelight. The moment jolts: for much of its running time, this is a portrait of writing that’s social and highly energetic.

It’s also a portrait of writing that’s deeply connected to the passions of its protagonist. That would be Will Shakespeare (Michael Wahr), who’s struggling to finish his play Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Chief among his passions is his growing love for the wealthy Viola de Lesseps (Claire van der Boom) who disguises herself as a man so she can indulge her true passion for acting (women were banned from the stage at the time.)

Viola is being forced to marry the dastardly Lord Wessex (Daniel Frederiksen). Comedy and a bit of drama ensues as Will juggles rehearsals with a motley group of players, a friendly rivalry with fellow playwright Kit Marlowe (Luke Arnold), his love for Viola and the demands of his wealthy benefactors.

The plot will be familiar to those who watched the 1998 film whose screenplay, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, was adapted for the stage by English playwright Lee Hall. This production is by some order of magnitude better than the film. The breezy pacing, delightfully calibrated performances and clever moments of theatricality – both grand and small – are all used to entertaining effect.

Gabriela Tylesova’s revolving set is put to good use throughout, speeding up scene transitions or, as in a lovely moment wherein Viola recites Sonnet 18, seemingly slowing down time, underlying the poetry of Shakespeare’s language. Looming over the action is an oversized blue theatre curtain, a constant, gentle reminder that this is theatre about theatre.

Not that these reminders are limited to the set. The script mines humour from the idea that Shakespeare is famous to us but labouring in semi-obscurity on stage, and it even playfully broaches the subject of the disputed authorship of his work, as in a scene where Marlowe feeds his friend lines to woo Viola.

The production is full of nice little touches, from the players performing musical interludes between scenes (is that Francis Greenslade playing the recorder?) to the increasingly noticeable codpiece being swung around by Lord Wessex, seemingly growing alongside the character’s unfurling misogyny.

Various performers in the 14-member ensemble all help maintain the play’s lightness of touch. Deidre Rubenstein commands absolute attention in a deliciously entertaining role as Queen Elizabeth I, resplendent in some outstanding gowns.

It would be remiss of me to not mention Rosie the dog, sporting her own mini Elizabethan collar. The audience broke into audible awws and spontaneous applause at her first appearance on stage, seemingly proving Queen Elizabeth’s observation in the play that theatre-makers can’t go wrong with dogs.

Director Simon Phillips finds plenty of humour in the ludicrous formalities of the upper crust Elizabethans, as in a ball scene whose absurd choreography recalls a similar moment in Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Favourite.

Director Simon Phillips finds plenty of humour in the ludicrous formalities of the upper crust Elizabethans, as in a ball scene whose absurd choreography recalls a similar moment in Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Favourite.

He also takes a playfully open approach to gender and sexuality, from casting Aljin Abella in dual roles as John Webster and Mistress Quickly to having Marlowe flirt with men. And while some late tonal shifts are somewhat jarring, such is the pace of proceedings that things find their feet again relatively quickly.

I doubt that this production of Shakespeare in Love would disprove a key wager in the show: that a play can’t show the true nature of love. But then, it’d be unfair to expect it to. This is a warm-hearted and well-executed entertainment, and a beguiling reminder of theatre’s joyful possibilities.

Shakespeare In Love is at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse until August 14.

Feature pic: Claire van der Boom and Michael Wahr. Jeff Busby/MTC

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