Entertainment & Arts

Shakespeare in Love takes centre stage

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionActor Tom Bateman: "They all got up on their feet so we can't ask for anything more"

It's 16 years since the movie Shakespeare in Love took seven Oscars. The process of adapting the screenplay for the stage has been a long one but now the deep pockets of Disney have brought the play to the West End.

There's an unusually large cast of 29, including one who insists on food being stashed in unlikely places around the stage.

The show's star, actor Tom Bateman, would probably rather talk about the subtleties of his central performance or Lee Hall's adaptation of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's screenplay.

Instead, he politely answers questions about working with Barney the dog, who once or twice comes close to stealing the show.

"The whole cast loves Barney but as actors we sort of hate him as well," he says.

Image copyright publicity
Image caption Tom Bateman says the producers were generous in the length of time the cast was given to rehearse

"We're slaving away and he gets the audience for free - he doesn't have to do much except be lovable.

"Ultimately all he wants is food: As long as there's a treat hidden in a sleeve or on set, he'll perform."

Disguising dog biscuits has been just one small stop-off on Shakespeare in Love's journey to the stage. It was the late 1980s when American screenwriter Marc Norman wrote a script imagining a love affair Shakespeare might have had whilst writing Romeo and Juliet.

The movie finally emerged in 1998, with the script now by Norman and Tom Stoppard. Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes starred.

Years later, Stoppard was prevailed upon to write a stage version - but he was unhappy with the result and the task of making the story work on stage has now gone to Lee Hall, author of Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters.

Bateman says there were times when both Stoppard and Hall were in the rehearsal room with the cast and director Declan Donnellan.

"But if the writers ever disagreed, they hid it very well. The whole show is a love letter to the theatre and theatre is by its nature a collaboration."

With such a large cast, you might expect Shakespeare in Love to echo Hall's experience of bringing Billy Elliot to the stage. But he says there's a big difference.

"In a musical, a lot of the people on stage form the chorus - they're moving as one body. But with this play everyone's got their own character and their own story. Add to that we've got a two-level set and often upstage is being used as a separate playing area.

"It's an elaborate show but thankfully the producers Disney Theatrical and Sonia Friedman gave us six weeks of rehearsal and three weeks of previews to sort it all out. That's very generous in commercial theatre.

Image copyright publicity
Image caption Lucy Briggs-Owen says of playing Viola: 'You're aware of the great actresses who did the role before you but you have to work it out for yourself.'

"But what I've learnt is you just do each tiny section, bit by bit, as you would with any other play.

"I learnt a lot working with Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod [designer]. They know so much about Shakespearean and Jacobean theatre.

"There's barely anything they can't tell you about the real-life Curtain and Rose theatres in which the story takes place."

Hall says he learnt not to worry too much about what to keep and what to add to the 1998 film script.

"As I get older I've realised that almost everything in theatre comes from somewhere else - whether from a film or a myth or a news event.

"After all, Shakespeare based Romeo and Juliet on Italian originals.

"What you're concerned about as a theatre-maker is making it work and giving the actors something to show off with."

Reviews round-up: Shakespeare in Love

  • "The Oscar-laden movie, with its wonderfully witty script by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, was terrific, but in Lee Hall's delightful stage adaptation the piece seems to have found its true home. It's funny, often genuinely moving and generates a glow you could warm your hands by." Charles Spencer, The Telegraph
  • "There's comedy and a bit with a dog (Spot, played ably by Barney), but Shakespeare in Love also has a big heart, tunes to set your feet tapping and more actual Shakespeare than you might think. Shall I compare the adaptation to the original? No point. Both are excellent of their kind, and enough to set anyone well on their way to being in love with Shakespeare." Alexandra Coughlan, The Arts Desk
  • "The smartest move made by the producers was to hire director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, the world-renowned Cheek By Jowl team, whose profound understanding of Shakespearean drama (its dazzling fluidity; its blithe refusal to respect the 'rules' of genre; its mood-mingling suppleness) enriches a production that is filled with moments of sheer stage poetry as well as good-natured, effervescent fun." Paul Taylor, The Independent
  • "The production begins energetically but sometimes seems encumbered by its lavishness, losing momentum in its second half, and the knowing cleverness of the writing makes the play feel like an anthology of in-jokes and familiar quotations. Yet there are rich laughs, flickers of mischief and peachy spurts of surrealism. A few heavy-handed moments aside, Shakespeare In Love has a fizzy, infectious exuberance." Henry Hitchings, The Standard

Lucy Briggs-Owen plays Viola De Lesseps, with whom Shakespeare becomes infatuated.

She saw the film when she was a young girl and loved Paltrow's performance, but she decided not to watch it again for the new show.

"Declan Donnellan didn't lay down the law about watching or not watching the movie, it was up to us. But in the rehearsal room no one ever uttered the words: 'Oh, but in the film…' That wasn't what we were interested in.

"For a performer, in a way, it's the same as doing any Shakespeare play. You're aware of the great actresses who did the role before you but you have to work it out for yourself. You leave all the baggage behind.

"The story's about the transfiguring power of theatre, which is why it's so right that now it's being played in a theatre. The characters - and not just Viola and Will - go through huge transformations in the story. So there's a lot of fun but it's perceptive about human nature too.

"And how could it not be when what's underneath is brilliant work by Stoppard and Shakespeare? Well now - there's a cocktail."

Shakespeare in Love is on at the Noel Coward Theatre in London until 25 October.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites