25.07.2019

Review: MTC’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’ succeeds where the original film failed

Shakespeare in Love
Photo: Jeff Busby
Words by Chris Swan

★★★★

It’s not uncommon these days to see remakes and reboots gracing the silver screen. However, in recent years, theatrical adaptations of classic films have become more and more common. Everything from Solaris to School of Rock has seen audiences packing into Melbourne’s lush theatre venues, although none seem like a more fitting adaptation than Melbourne Theatre Company’s new production of Shakespeare in Love.

Based on the Academy Award-winning screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, playwright Lee Hall has brilliantly taken the comedic tale of lovelorn William Shakespeare, who’s suffering a severe case of writer’s block, to its most logical evolution: the stage. There’s something quite magical — and just a little bit meta — about watching Shakespeare and his troupe gather in the theatre to create a new piece of art for the masses. It adds an extra element of knowing and joy that, now having seen the story performed in its seemingly rightful place, was truly lacking in the original film.

Director Simon Phillips, along with the amazing design efforts of Gabriela Tylesova, has brought this lavish new production to life in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre. Using every inch of the stage, they’ve crafted an understated but visually engaging world for their players to inhabit. The scale of the story isn’t the broadest, although you find yourself quickly immersed in the world of theatre rehearsals, barroom brawls and extravagant high society balls.

By creating this world for their production, Phillips and Tlesova have truly honed in on the important aspects of the play. They’ve emphasised the personal story at the heart of Hall’s new script and let the world around it grow naturally from the words and performances.

Heading the cast is Michael Wahr, who plays the titular role. He brings sweetness and vulnerability to the young playwright, which slowly evolves into a more brash performance as his infatuation for Viola grows. This is nicely contrasted against Claire van der Boom, who portrays the adventurous Viola de Lesseps with steadfast confidence, creating an effortless rhythm between the two characters as they bounce Hall’s witty dialogue back and forth.

The cast is full of hysterically memorable performances, with Daniel Frederiksen pushing the combative Lord Wessex to a delightfully over the top fop and Chris Ryan transforming character Ned Alleyn into narcissism incarnate. The entire cast seem to be revelling in the opportunity to poke fun at their profession, which brings a unique playfulness to the production that the audience can’t help but enjoy.

Shakespeare in Love cleverly gives audiences a peek behind the curtain, brilliantly retelling the made-up story behind one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. It’s a production full of laughs, love and even a cute little dog (everything an audience is looking for). With its season extended, it’s sure to be the sell-out hit of this year’s MTC program.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare in Love is running at Arts Centre Melbourne until Saturday August 17.