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Review: Shakespeare in Love at the Arts Centre Melbourne

By Nicola Bennett

Based on the much lauded 1998 film, ‘Shakespeare in Love’ brings a new perspective and youth to modern day Shakespearean performance. The Melbourne Theatre Company leaves nothing behind in the Australian premiere of this production, delivering both scale and sentiment in a heavy dose. Under the experienced direction of Simon Phillips, Shakespeare’s quest to win both love and literary prowess is well executed with plenty of heart.

The audience is introduced to the man behind the legendary name, a young Will Shakespeare, played with a youthful intensity by Michael Wahr. Shakespeare struggles for motivation in carving out his latest work, compelled to write his latest comedy, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter” to please audiences who are hungry for a happy ending. Fate intervenes in his quest for inspiration through its delivery of Viola, a young woman with ambition and a love of the theatre, in particular the works of one William Shakespeare. This dynamic of forbidden love brings the romance to this comedy, permanently changing the course of his latest work, as well as the world of theatre, forever. 

A driving force of feminine strength in a medieval man’s world, Claire van der Boom establishes Viola with the premise of an Elizabethan woman torn between passion and duty. Pleasingly, van der Boom evolves her character around modern feminist ideals - a refreshing and supportable portrayal that avoids the sometimes tragic characterisation of women in Shakespeare’s works. The chemistry between Wahr and van der Boom could spark more in its early stages, to really emphasise the power of their instantaneous connection in true Romeo and Juliet style.

However, their authenticity builds with their characters over the course of the production, ultimately delivering a believable connection that does draw us in and invests us in their story.

The remainder of the cast is on constant rotation, with the supporting cast adopting multiple roles across rapidly changing scenarios. Special mention must go to Chris Ryan for his cheeky charm as the theatrical player Ned Alleyn, and also to Luke Arnold for his portrayal as Kit Marlowe, Shakespeare’s quick-witted confident (and personal prompt throughout his writer’s block). Further acknowledgement should ultimately go to the supporting cast as a whole, whose camaraderie and comedic strength shines bright over the audience. The cast almost creates the binding effect of a traditional Greek chorus, following the movements of the main characters and supporting with vocals and physicality as tension and conflict arises. 

Some elements from the original film may have benefitted from further modernisation (a character’s crippling stutter doesn’t sell very well today as a punchline), but the comedy in this production generally gets it right. The show bounces swiftly between physical slapstick and sharp one-liners to rightfully earn its comedic label and not rely too heavily on constant cheap laughs. Strong comedic timing is a skill that many members of the cast deliver in spades, and it carries the production through very brief moments of lost momentum that are quickly forgotten as the frivolity resumes. There is a sense that this is a play produced for those familiar with the intricate processes of the theatre, as a noticeable portion of the comedy makes references to the function (or dysfunction) of the theatre industry. This perhaps aims to connect with viewers via the commonality of grievances in historical theatre production and the persistence of the same grievances experienced by those in the industry today. Judging by the response of the audience at opening night, this was a comedic strategy that resonated well with that crowd. However, this approach does risk an isolating effect for members of the audience who are not regular goers of the theatre world, and therefore should be wary of extending this branch of humour too far.

The costuming for Shakespeare in Love is a visual experience within its own right. Affluence and majesty defines the royal court’s attire, with Queen Elizabeth’s extravagant dress and headpiece a spectacular feat of engineering that has to be seen to be believed. It is not only royalty however who receive these impressive garments - each character is captivating in elaborate patterns and silhouettes, with all costumes encapsulating that traditional Elizabethan grandeur. Set & costume designer Gabriela Tylesova and the entire MTC wardrobe team are to be commended for the outstanding artistry that is evident on stage for this production, and their attention to such detail that creates such an impressive visual display. The set suits the style of the production, as the play’s sitcom-esque scenarios utilises the large square platform that rises from the stage and incorporates this structured space into various comedic settings. Some set movements behind the scenes could have been quieter, purely to allow the performer in front of the curtain the full attention of the audience without distraction. However the variability of the set and otherwise seamless transitions frames this Shakespearean world and lets the actors interact with the space to support their comedy.

Shakespeare in Love is an everyman’s romantic comedy, with just enough finesse to keep the more conservative theatre goer happy. Familiarity with Shakespeare or even the theatre in general is a bonus as an audience member, as it allows you to respond to some of the more specific humour with greater ease. However for those who have considered Shakespeare to be too difficult to approach as a viewer, I urge you to start your journey with this production and be prepared to not only enjoy it, but to connect with this well-established content in a new, vibrant way. The highly entertaining Shakespeare in Love is playing at the Arts Centre until 14th August.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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