The Fugard Theatre’s much-anticipated return season of Lee Hall’s Shakespeare in Love is an enchanting night of revelry and forbidden love, much like Romeo & Juliet, the play that shapes Hall’s narrative —although, of course, there’s no dog in the Bard’s original version. The production, directed by Greg Karvellas, proves to be the perfect antidote to 21st century cares whilst simultaneously compelling its audience to see parallels between the accepted place of women in Elizabethan England and the social undercurrents of the present day.
Two worlds collide as Viola de Lesseps (Roxane Hayward), ’n well-moneyed young lady of marriageable age, meets William Shakespeare (Daniel Mpilo Richards), a lowly playwright with a knack for procrastination. Their road to everlasting love is made somewhat rocky by Viola’s insistence on dressing up as a boy to perform in Will’s new play, and by the fact that Viola’s already been promised in marriage to the villainous Lord Wessex (Jason K. Ralph).
Casting Richards in the role of Will Shakespeare appears to have been an inspired choice. His energetic physicality makes him a joy to watch, and there’s a pleasing bonhomie evident between Richards’s Shakespeare and fellow-newcomer Armand Aucamp’s Kit Marlowe. Richards’s swagger under Viola’s balcony after his character ‘recites’ a sonnet fed to him by Marlowe deserves its own award category.
Hayward successfully moves between serene lady of the court and enthusiastic lover of the theatre. She seems entirely at ease opposite Richards, and her palpable enjoyment of the part is especially evident in her character’s more jovial moments. Viola’s fiancé Lord Wessex, played by the appropriately mustachioed Ralph, is the perfect brooding villain with his menacing sneer and complete disregard for his intended’s feelings and … well … personhood. Despite all this, Ralph manages to present a slightly more tender side to the lecherous Wessex after the character’s brief brush with metaphysical terror.
Shakespeare in Love is, above all, an ensemble showcase piece. The play, with its focus on all things thespian, provides multiple opportunities for the company to poke fun at the many failings of those who make their living on the stage: Mark Elderkin’s sniffily haughty Burbage is the epitome of the greedy, ambitious actor, and Nicholas Pauling’s self-styled legendary player Ned Alleyn hilariously dials the egotism up to an 11. Rendani Mufamadi’s purposefully overdone audition piece brings the house down, and Sven Ruygrok looks like he’s having the time of his life playing the innocent young Sam, whose job hinges on how accessible his falsetto is. Dean Balie proves an unsettling presence as the scheming John Webster.
Theatrical impressario Henslowe, played with boundless energy by Darron Araujo, brightens the stage whenever he pipes up with one of his endearingly optimistic ‘It’s a mystery’s. Pierre Malherbe’s Scouse Nol is a delightful surprise, and Adrian Collins’s Ralph’s turn as the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet is unimprovable. Kathleen Stephens brings a warm authenticity to the rather bland parts of Mistress Quickly and Molly. Robyn Scott’s Queen Elizabeth once again has the audience rolling in the aisles with her biting remarks and hilarious vocal affectations, and Louis Viljoen delivers a sweet, sympathetic Mr. Wabash and an absolutely side-splitting Boatman.
Just like last time, Paul Wills’s set does a great deal to transport the audience to the Elizabethan playhouse. The uncluttered stage with its deceptively simple-looking wood panels presents just the right platform for this story of mistaken identity and courtly conventions to unfold. The production also boasts excellent sound design by David Classen.
As the sword-fighting and jig-dancing come to an end, Queen Elizabeth remarks that she knows a little something of being a woman in a man’s job. Her words are elicited by poor Viola’s predicament as a girl who simply wants to be accepted as a member of the Elizabethan stage, but one is left with a nagging feeling that this play, entertaining as it is, seeks to interrogate its 21st century audience about their understanding of their own world as much as it seeks to have us all clap along to an upbeat curtain call.
You can see Shakespeare in Love on stage at the Fugard Theatre until 6 October 2018, including Saturday and Sunday matinees. Book your tickets online at www.thefugard.com.