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Shakespeare in Love: not even sustained infatuation

by | Jun 22, 2019 | Review | 0 comments


Bard on the Beach is presenting Shakespeare in Love

Ghazal Azarbad and Charlie Gallant make an openhearted—and comely—couple as Viola and Will.(Photo by Tim Matheson)

My experience of Shakespeare in Love at Bard on the Beach was kind of like an okay date that ended with some fantastic making out. The morning after, am I in love with this show? Nope, not by a long shot, although I’m grateful for the pleasures it offers.

Lee Hall’s stage play is based on Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for the 1998 film. It imagines Will Shakespeare as a youthful playwright who’s struggling with writer’s block until he meets a young woman named Viola de Lesseps, who comes from a moneyed family. Viola is smitten with theatre and longs to take part, but the law forbids women appearing onstage, so she disguises herself as a man she calls Thomas Kent, auditions, and gets cast as a character called Romeo in a new script that Will is working on.

Will and Viola fall for one another, of course — while Viola is still in drag, a convention that reconstructs the gender mirrors that feature in many of the real William Shakespeare’s plays.

Trouble arrives in the form of the money-grubbing Lord Wessex, who wants to marry Viola for her father’s fortune and cart her off to his tobacco plantation in Virginia. “Is she fertile?” Wessex asks Viola’s father. “She will breed,” de Lesseps replies. “If not, send her back.”

This set-up is seductive and, under Daryl Cloran’s direction, the play receives an extremely handsome mounting — I’ll talk more about that in a bit — but, thematically, Shakespeare in Love is shallow (which comic entertainment does not need to be).

There are a lot of broad jokes. Initially, Will calls his evolving script Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. A gag in which Will gets all of his best ideas from his friend and competitor Kit Marlowe is repeated ad nauseum. There’s a cruel thread that exploits stuttering for its supposed comic effect. And the play is built to include a whole lot of virtually meaningless stage business, including an extended swordfight in which rival producers Henslowe and Richard Burbage brawl, along with their supporters, for the possession of the only copy of the play that is, by this point, called Romeo and Juliet. Because the rivalry between Henslowe and Burbage isn’t established in any resonant way, the swordfight is vacant flash.

There are also moving moments and transcendent passages, but those are, for the most part, cheaply bought. Will’s love for Viola inspires him to write Sonnet 18, for example: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” And, as Will gets further into the writing of Romeo and Juliet, more and more of that text — including the balcony scene and the palmers’ dialogue — emerges. This material is exquisite and this cast delivers it with skill, but this text is also ripped off. Its contextualization in Shakespeare in Love provides no illumination; the real poetry is just dropped into a sentimental romance to give that romance the appearance of heft.

That said, the acting company in this Bard on the Beach production is extraordinary and the costumes glitter like the crown jewels.

In a consistently impressive cast, Ghazal Azarbad is the standout as Viola. Azarbad is direct, warm, and intelligent, and she makes such simple, moving sense of the Shakespearean language that her presence becomes the most consistent point of emotional access. Charlie Gallant is swoon-inducingly charming as Shakespeare and he commits himself to the play’s ecstasies and heartbreaks.

There’s an abundance of comic talent including Andrew McNee as Burbage, Scott Bellis as Henslowe, and Anton Lipovetsky (sometimes funny, mostly appropriately creepy) as Wessex. There’s also a surprising young discovery: Jason Sakaki, who plays a cross-dressing boy actor named Sam. In less gifted hands, Sam could be a one-note throwaway, but Sakaki brings such emotional precision to his performance that he’s compelling to watch. Then of course there’s Jennifer Lines, who is having an infectiously good time parading around in a fabulous gown as Elizabeth I, making imperious and well-timed pronouncements.

The story didn’t grab me until very late, though — well into Act 2. That’s when Will and Viola’s love affair starts to overlap with their play-within-the-play production of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s story and words are deliriously lovely. Everybody onstage, including Azarbad and Gallant, is acting their heart out. Costume designer Cory Sincennes has clothed all of the bodies in gorgeously textured whites. And, as we’re watching all of this unfold at Bard on the Beach, it’s a summer night and the last rays of the sun are flickering behind the mountains. Who could resist? Not me — not in the moment, anyway.

All night, Sincennes’s costumes are knockouts. I have never seen such a dazzling parade at Bard. Wessex’s outfit alone, with it’s cream and gold pumpkin pants, quilted jacket, and thigh-high, gold-tipped boots, is a sartorial wet dream. There are so many stunners.

But sometimes, after you’ve kissed somebody, you have to pull back and look them in the face.

I won’t give away the details of the ending, but I will say that Viola sacrifices herself to Will’s genius. Her reward is supposedly literary immortality, but fuck that. Who remembers the muses? What about Viola’s creativity? And do we really want to buy into the bogus romanticism of women being happy fodder for male artistry?

Bard’s choice to produce Shakespeare in Love also calls into question the company’s perception of its audience. At its best — as in last year’s productions of As You Like It, which Cloran also directed, and Lysistrata — Bard on the Beach takes risks. At its weakest, Bard dumbs things down, offering easy comedy and sumptuous but conservative design in lieu of challenging content and artistic adventure. My take is that, for all of its successes, Shakespeare in Love falls into the latter category. And it’s not like Bard needs a cash cow: according to their own audience stats, they have one of the best attendance records in Christendom.

I’d much rather see a more substantial script than Shakespeare in Love, maybe something by somebody like — I don’t know — William Shakespeare.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall. Music by Paddy Cunneen. Directed by Daryl Cloran.A Bard on the Beach production. In the BMO Mainstage Tent in Vanier Park on Friday, June 21. Continues until September 18. Tickets.


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