Friday, 18 July 2014

Chapter 27: The Gender-Bending Circus of Shakespeare In Love

"Writing is a love affair not a solitary pleasure.  There must be a connection between you and the material."

Jeanette Winterson
(tweeted by @WomenWriters)

This observation could have been written for "Shakespeare in Love",  the stage adaptation of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's screenplay, currently on at the Noel Coward theatre in the West End.

Picture the opening scene in an Elizabethan playhouse.   Will Shakespeare is sitting at a writing desk, quill poised, surrounded by the expectant faces of his friends, and he is struggling.  He grasps at words that Kit Marlowe, seemingly effortlessly, plucks from the air.   And it's not because Will can't write,  you understand, but because he can't connect.  He is struggling to write a love sonnet, but he hasn't yet fallen in love.

Enter stage left Viola De Lesseps.  Having always wanted to run away to join the circus theatre and be a real player, Viola dresses up as a boy, Thomas Kent, and auditions for the part of Will's Romeo.  She will soon desires to also play his Juliet.  Tom Kent's audition is successful because s/he has already connected with Shakespeare's poetry, and with that level of engagement s/he not only "gets" the role of Romeo, s/he incarnates him.  And Will quite clearly falls for the boy who so embodies his text.  The fact that he is later revealed to be biologically a girl is pretty much an irrelevancy.  The naked truth is that Will Shakespeare worships the muse who has engaged him, who has reconnected him to his material, and released his pen.  

Liam Brennan' Duke Orsino, Johnny Flynn's Viola
"Twelfth Night"

Viola is a great role in any incarnation.   I played her once in a school school talent contest (nul points!) where Viola meets Desdemona and Lady Macbeth in heaven, and a debate ensues as to which is the greatest of Shakespeare's heroines.  For the record, my money will always be on the girl who finds liberty, equality, and, ahem!, fraternity in  stepping outside the constraints of her corset for laughs. (cf. burlesque in The Polelogue).   Then last year it was the turn of the delectable Johnny Flynn playing Viola in Mark Rylance's all-male production of "Twelfth Night".  If music be the food of love, then his singing voice is pure ambrosia to be devoured.  The Greek sort that is, nectar of the gods, not the UHT devon custard.

But I digress.  While in this production Lucy Briggs-Owen as Viola enchants as she goes a-musing,  Abigail McKern's nurse entertains, and Anna Cateret's Queen Elizabeth is a commanding presence,   "Shakespeare in Love" is not really about the fair sex at all, but rather a celebration of manhood in all its guises.   First up, Tom Bateman's Will Shakespeare.  Oh sweet heaven, a tower of sexual charisma and a relentlessly exciting presence on the stage.   And  I was Wilde about David Oakes' Kit Marlowe, his ready wit and steel, feeding lines to a starving friend in need, brotherly love paired with Eros' roving eye for a pretty boy. Doug Rao's rakish Ned Alleyn, cast as Mercutio, is electric.   Colin Ryan's hilarious and creepy Webster, a scene-stealer.

The play is a study in unzipping masculinity in other ways too.  It is not just Tom Kent who sheds the doublet and dons a frock.  Alistair Petrie's superbly arrogant Wessex, Viola's betrothed, finds himself cuckolded, unmanned.     Paul Chihadi's put-upon Henslowe, Shakespeare's patron, is being held to ransom by Ferdy Robert's loan shark Fennyman, and finds himself mincing across an economic tightrope, on occasion dangling.  Fennyman in turn is disarmed on being cast in the play as the apothecary, oh vanity of vanities.  The cross-gartered Lord of Revels, a future Malvolio, is thwarted in his attempts to close the playhouse and stuffed through the trap door, only to emerge impotently raging "I will be revenged on the whole pack of you."

Watching the fortunes of these players unravelling, passion unbuttoning, creative juices unleashing, I was transported for the duration.    At the end of the day, though, just another Passenger, along for the ride. 


  1. I loved, loved this. You caught it all so well. I particularly enjoyed the pun on "wilde." Superbly written all round!

  2. Thank you so much Anne, glad you enjoyed too :-))


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