Despite originating as an Oscar-winning movie, the stars of Shakespeare In Love, Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen, are convinced the tale of poetry, love and a dog has found its true place on the stage.
“I think it belongs in the theatre,” Bateman told Official London Theatre following a rapturous reception on press night. “Performing it every night the beautiful blurred lines between what’s real and what’s not real, when the audience of the Noël Coward [Theatre] becomes the audience of the Rose [Theatre – the playhouse in which much of the show is based]; the ambiguity of that is something you can’t get in film. It belongs here and it’s such a joy to play in front of a live audience.”
Based on a screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, which has been adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, Bateman and Briggs-Owen follow in the footsteps of Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow by playing William Shakespeare and the noble woman who reignites his genius Viola De Lesseps.
While Briggs-Owen admits to being apprehensive about following in the Hollywood star’s footsteps, her experience of performing in classic plays including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Importance Of Being Earnest coloured her viewpoint on the challenge posed: “I think it’s like any great Shakespeare play that you do,” she told us. “There are people who’ve done it before you, but you have to forget that and find it afresh. Never once in rehearsals were the words ‘but in the film…’ uttered.”
“You can never replicate,” agreed Bateman. “We were in the best possible hands with Declan [Donnellan, the director] and Lee [Hall] in the room. We knew we were doing something very different.”
The romantic comedy follows the Bard as he struggles to write his new play Romeo And Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter. A chance meeting with a highborn lady reignites his passion and flair. Unbeknownst to him, Viola’s love for the stage is too strong for her to fight, so she dons a hat and breeches to pretend to be a boy and audition for Shakespeare’s play.
The play, described by the Daily Telegraph as “The best British comedy since One Man, Two Guvnors,” runs at the Noël Coward Theatre until 25 October.