Maybe the best way to explain why this mega-bucks stage version of the 1998 pseudo-histo-rom-com doesn’t work (and it really, really doesn’t) is to consider why the original movie basically does. Okay, so seven Academy Awards is ridonkulous, but the year before Titanic scored 11 so it’s best not to worry about that sort of thing. Okay, so it’s pretty sappy, fairly pretentious and as frothy as the head on a tankard of tavern ale, but it’s heaps of surprisingly enduring fun. The script, tweaked and toned by Tom Stoppard, is sharp without ever sticking in the craw; the central love story isn’t too vomitus; and there’s plenty of shagging, bawdy jokes and barn-door broad performances from Britain’s considerable stable of character actors.
There’s barely a scrap of that, of any of that, in the creaky Disney-funded bore currently cantering in the West End. It’s not quite true to say nothing’s been ventured, but there’s not a shadow of a doubt that nothing’s been gained.
Stoppard and co-writer Marc Norman deserve the majority of plaudits for the film’s success. And say what you like about Stoppard, he’s in a different league to stage adaptor Lee Hall. Where Stoppard found the perfect pitch, balancing his humour, like Shakespeare, between clever-clever for the Ivory Tower brigade and slapstick sauce for the groundling crowd, Hall’s lands with a cringy thud somewhere in between. There’s a bit with a dog, right – called Spot – and when Henslowe wants to get him offstage he shouts (altogether now”¦) ‘Out, damned Spot!’ And that’s one of the better bits. A few of Stoppard and Norman’s best lines remain, but plenty are bungled, including Henslowe’s catchphrase about everything being ‘a mystery!’ The great use of a young Webster in a small but crucial role in the film is particularly poorly recreated, as the joke is stretched far beyond its capacity and accompanied by some Hilarious Facial Disfigurement Humourâ„¢. Good stuff. The laughs come thin and slow, and despite the occasional dab of end of the pier sauce, there’s none of that rough, whiskery comedy that kept the film biting.
The love story never has much of a chance here, seriously lacking in passion and therefore pathos, building coolly before disintegrating without so much as tweaking the heartstrings. Lucy Briggs-Owen should be commended for making no effort to emulate Gwy-Po as Viola, but the reading she has landed on robs the character of much of her intelligence, coming across as petulant and even a little grating.
It’s Shakespeare himself who’s the greatest victim of Hall’s pen, both the character and the works. Joseph Fiennes played him with a flippant energy with just a dusting with dash: more Chandos-thrusting than Droeshout-drab, but still basically a genius. Here he’s essentially a fop, who more often cribs his best lines (not to mention chat-up lines) from the all to present Kit Marlowe. As Will, Tom Bateman makes the best of a bad job, but his double act with the Faustus-scribe, played dry as the remainder biscuit by David Oakes, is never less than tedious. There’s so much of Marlowe dossing around here, and so little of interest to Shakespeare, that it begins to whiff a bit of “authorship questions”. I hope that’s not what Hall is implying, but then I’ve never really believed that he wrote The Pitman Painters, so there you go.
Elsewhere, Shakespeare’s words suffer from severe over-exposure. The final scenes in The Curtain contain some of director Declan Donnellan’s finest staging, but they’re weighed down by such massive chunks of Romeo and Juliet that the plot sinks out of sight. The sonnets are flung about like Hallmark card-fillers and everything else is just meat for a weak pun.
Donnellan’s direction more generally is just a bit scrappy. Terry King’s fight scenes are weak, and too often a sense of hubbub is attempted with a lot of tentative running about. Donellan’s big idea is partially successful, with the immense cast gathering like an audience around the wooden galleries of Nick Ormerod’s polished set. It’s wonderful in those occasional scenes of courtly intrigue, and really comes into its own at the denouement, when Ormerod’s set’s ability to essentially turn itself inside out allows Donnellan to continuously flip the audience’s perspective on the performance.
There are other bright patches of strong staging – the hilarious ferryman/cab driver sequence is brilliantly preserved and smartly foleyed by cast members toying with creaking pails of water. Most of the business with Fennyman (Ferdy Roberts) and his stage ambitions is also very funny, and the dog (Barney the Dog), quite aptly, is a total showstopper.
It’s not like there’s nothing to like, but there’s so much less than there was and so very much less than there could be. Dots have generally been joined, some well, many badly, and the whole thing will probably rest on someone else’s laurels in the West End for quite a while.
But isn’t that rubbish? In a year with so much brilliant, entertaining, imaginative theatre, this is what we’ve got opening on the West End. Tick-box, muddle-through, collect cheque, snore snore snore snore snore.