It’s a play within a play within a play, a dazzling bit of visual spectacle and a rollercoaster ride of romance.
But just one more thing before you go to see Shakespeare in Love at the Canberra Theatre: this is not the 1998 film. It’s funnier, more intimate, more theatrical – even though it doesn’t have Gwyneth Paltrow.
Director Simon Philips has just finished directing the stage adaptation of Muriel’s Wedding. He says the stage production of Shakespeare in Love plays out quite differently to the movie while following the same narrative: an imaginary love affair between struggling playwright William Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps, occurring while he’s writing Romeo and Juliet.
“Film gives you lots of evocative environments and captures the atmosphere of Elizabethan dirt and bustle, but the story really centres on a wager about whether a play can express the true nature of love,” he says.
“When that takes place inside a theatre, somehow the difference in scale intensifies everything.”
The film script was written by Tom Stoppard with Marc Norman and has been adapted for the stage by Lee Hall. It plays with many of Shakespeare’s favourite themes including endless cross-dressing and gender confusion.
Phillips says that, too, plays out especially well on the stage because the intimacy of the theatre makes it easier to suspend our disbelief.
“A young man is playing Juliet, a young woman is playing Romeo, it becomes delightful in this setting where the audience is complicit in all the deception,” Phillips says.
“Actors are playing actors at their most egomaniacal and unreliable. The play manages to be a love letter to the theatre without remotely romanticising it – it’s mostly about how chaotic and accidental theatre is when everyone is in a constant state of panic.”
The setting is wholly Elizabethan because that makes sense when your lead character is Shakespeare and the composite stage design also refers to the Globe Theatre.
Visually, Phillips says Shakespeare in Love is “very, very beautiful. No expense has been spared in the production, we’ve put huge energy into making it very lovely with an enormous number of exquisite costumes. The setting is theatrically very romantic and a visual feast.”
One of the keys to the work is the layering of language in Hall’s stage adaptation.
“There’s language that is as close to contemporary banter as ‘makes no matter’, then a middle language that eases the ear into Shakespearean verse,” Phillips says.
“When the play is at its most intensely beautiful, you’ll hear the words of Shakespeare. The bits you see of Romeo and Juliet are the perfect, most beautiful parts, delicately filleted and edited.
“Our actors need to be very flexible with how they use the text but the most glorious words are very focused on the lovers at the heart of this story.”
Above all, Phillips says this is an uplifting, funny and delightful evening in the theatre.
“The play is full of intrigue, derring-do and then you drop into moments of delightful romance and love. Right now, I’m very much in the mindset that the more often the theatre can deliver joy, the greater good it does for society.”