Shakespeare in Love at the Fugard Theatre captivates, because it does not try to be a cinematic copy. What it is, is romantic, dramatic, comedic, exaggerated fun. Greg Karvellas as director strikes a balance between movie nostalgia and stage expectation by playing to the nuances a parody of this nature demands.
In fact, Karvellas himself describes Shakespeare in Love perfectly: it is “a piece of fan fiction”. This is not the play you go see when you want logic and historical accuracy, but one more fitting to your theatre taste if you want lunacy and hysterical artistic exploration, while still craving a bit of a tug at the heartstrings.
The original screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard was adapted, and arguably even repackaged, for the stage by Lee Hall. It still tries to fill in the imaginative gap of what happened to the young Will Shakespeare when he was struggling with writer’s block, but it does not allow the Romeo and Juliet romantic feels to dominate the condensed narrative. The narrative is driven from Will's perspective and with that the play brings an opportunity to mix things up a little by highlighting the equal significance of the Will-Viola love relationship alongside (rather than contrasted with) the Will-Kit confidant relationship – both of them his muses in different ways. When the actors portraying those roles match each other as equals in talent and in stage presence, the tempo of the play delights.
Dylan Edy (Will Shakespeare), Roxane Hayward (Lady Viola de Lesseps) and Theo Landey (Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe) bring this dynamic to stage with much skill, though they appear more inclined to dramatise their roles than tap into the comedic rhythm embraced by the rest of the cast. This is not necessarily a negative. It could merely be a creative choice that may sit well with some audiences, but leave others wanting for a more interconnected style. But this is after all a romantic comedy, so one could argue that their strong dramatic performances are the ingredients that set the scene for the mistaken-identity romance component, while the hilarious shenanigans of the other characters add the lighter scheming and theatrical elements to the comedic component.
In so maintaining the delicate equilibrium of the intertwined Viola-Will-Kit storylines, the play presents the opportunity for a vibrant, boisterous production that makes you laugh and cry (with more laughter) as the absurdity is amped-up through various scenarios, but also people – in fact, Robyn Scott as Queen Elizabeth is the brilliant personification of comedic absurdity.
That’s where the appeal of the gag-driven stage version lies: it allows the developing romance to be the boundaries within which the comedy unfolds, and so brings welcome relief to a production that would otherwise be too fluffy.
The simplicity of the set design by Paul Wills is deceiving. It stares back at you, understated and colourless, one could even say plain, when you enter the theatre. Yet, the moment Will picks up his quill in Act 1 it transforms into a canvass of light (courtesy of Wolf Britz) that shows off the grandeur of the Royal Shakespeare Company sourced costumes, and becomes the playground for the talented cast to carry the narrative.
In allowing the elements of the play collectively to set the scene, one gets a scenic design hint of a modest nod to the Globe Theatre’s associated symbolism of 'heaven' and 'hell'. Though the trapdoors to 'hell' are traditionally built into the stage floor, in this Fugard Theatre production, the trapdoors surround the actors for quick scene changes and impressive reveals as they manically try to outwit and out-love one another in the context of Will's pursuit to find inspiration – the adorable Bogart as The Dog, prancing around amongst the cast, but one disorderly example that surprises the audience (and the actors) by appearing through such a 'door'.
In the midst of the onstage frenzy, there is precision too. With the aid of Jon Keevy (fight choreography) and Kristin Wilson (choreography) you will very likely find yourself both amused and impressed at the light-footed and nimble moves showcased by the unlikeliest of suspects with both sword and in dance.
Within the greater scheme of the production, Jason K Ralph, as the resolute Lord Wessex, and Mark Elderkin, as the desperate Richard Burbage, are a treat to behold, but special mention must be made of Nicholas Pauling. As the pseudo-narcissistic Ned Alleyn, Pauling definitely makes his presence known, both on the Fugard stage as well as on the stage within a stage. As Alleyn, he brings stability to a directionless Will, who is too busy struggling with himself, his writers block, and his (lost) love, to lead his troupe of performers.
Alongside Pauling, Ralph, and Elderkin, others impress too. Although this is not a musical, it is lovely to hear the songstress Lucy Tops hum a few bars in between her performance, as she confidently steps into the role of The Nurse.
Those who follow the work of the Fugard Theatre’s resident playwright, Louis Viljoen, will be pleased to see him take on the role of not only Mr Wabash, but also (with a bit of clever casting by Karvellas) a ferryman with a knack for the written word. During a boat scene with Edy and Hayward, Viljoen with great expression reveals that comedy sometimes can be most effective when subtly approached. Along with the scenes where Queen Elizabeth reveals herself more inclined to like dogs than actors, this is a well-conceived humorous interlude.
As part of Will’s theatre company, supposedly set to perform ‘Romeo and Ethel, the Pirates Daughter’, Adrian Collins as Ralph adds a further quirky nuance that, to fully appreciate, you simply have to see for yourself, along with the stage antics of Sven Ruygrok, Nathan Lynn, John Maytham and the rest of the star-studded cast.
The Fugard’s production of Shakespeare in Love is a tempting mix of silliness and desire (both of the heart and the ego), so expect famous figure cameos, nods to Shakespeare’s most celebrated works, and even the echoes of a few legendary lines. There is no reveal of a deeper meaning or motive behind this staging. It is merely an amusing, fictional story about a character we all know, yet know little of. So viewed, Shakespeare in Love presents the opportunity for a fun night out at the theatre. Sometimes, especially this time of the year, that is all one needs!
So if you are in the mood for great escapism with a theatrical twist, then go book your tickets at Computicket and get yourself to the Fugard Theatre before run ends 25 November 2017.