SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall. Directed by Greg Karvellas with Dylan Edy, Roxane Hayward, Robyn Scott, Jason K. Ralph, John Maytham, Nicholas Pauling, Theo Landey, Darren Araujo, Mark Elderkin, Lucy Tops, Bianca Flanders, Bogart and more. Set design: Paul Wills. Choreographer: Kristin Wilson. Musical superviser: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Costume sourcing and styling: Birrie le Roux and Widaad Albertus. Fugard Theatre.

'Shakespeare in Love'

KAREN RUTTER reviews

It’s fair to imagine the Bard himself feeling FOMO about this production. Shakespeare in Love has everything that the latter playwright revelled in – gender-bending, plays within plays, comedy, tragedy, and even ghosts. If he could, William would have bought a ticket for the front row, and been thoroughly entertained by this homage to himself.

Based on the 1998 movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes in the lead roles, the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard was more than easily adapted into a stage play by Lee Hall three years ago. And in turn, this British comedy has been more than stylishly adopted by an all-South African squad. The considerable weight of the Fugard creative team (including resident director Greg Karvellas, resident costume designers Birrie le Roux and Widaad Albertus and resident musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, amongst others) has been mobilised offstage while the 20-strong ensemble cast is exactly that – strong. Very strong. Not to mention the appearance of ultimate crowd-pleaser, Bogart the dog.

Writer’s block

The story is set in Shakespeare’s time, at a period when he is frustrated by writer’s block. Fellow writer Christopher Marlowe is kindly supportive, but it is only when Will meets his muse – aspirant thespian Viola – that his juices start to flow. In more ways than one. Meanwhile, competing theatre producers are vying for the latest hit play, Viola’s dad plans to sell her off to a wealthy tobacco farmer, she in turn disguises herself as a boy, and the current queen insists on canine entertainment.

'Shakespeare in Love'

Shakespeare is trying hard to complete his latest work – unpromisingly titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter – with a rag-tag bunch of all-male actors (women were not allowed to appear on stage at the time). But when he and Viola fall in love, it is to result in one of the greatest plays of all time – with a different title, of course. The play mashes up fact and fiction in dynamic doses, and flatters the audience with erudite in-house references – at one point Shakespeare thoughtfully cradles a skull in his hands, while well-known lines (“Shall I compare thee …”) are thrown about with glee. While the comedic angles assume a basic knowledge of the Bard to maximise their clout, it is perhaps not essential – one can well imagine school-goers, yet to read their set works, getting a kick out of recognising the references after the fact. More pertinently, the play honours the rigour, the ruthlessness, and the rapture of theatre making. And herein lies its delight.

The South African cast bring a sense of joy to the production, most actors playing multiple roles with zest. From the smaller roles to the more colourful, there is a palpable energy which drives the action. In the title role, Dylan Edy is extremely easy on the eye and accessibly human – Shakespeare, after all, was a writer of and for the people. Playing opposite him as Viola, Roxane Hayward brings a feisty edge to her role, a young woman  passionate about theatre, and the man who creates it. They’re an attractive couple.

'Shakespeare in Love'

Character roles have the most fun

But it is the character roles that have the most fun. Radio host John Maytham steps away from his 567 seat and delivers a robust performance as Fennyman, a man who starts out funding a play and ends up delighted to be in it. Nicholas Pauling is a rollicking Ned Alleyn, putting his all into the so-called lead role of Mercutio. Darron Araujo is a whimsical delight as impresario Henslowe, while his competitor Richard Burbage is played by Mark Elderkin, an actor who one can’t help being captivated by every time he is on a stage. Lucy Tops (Nurse), Louis Viljoen (Mr Wabash), Bianca Flanders (Mistress Quickly) and the rest are all fantastic.

But it is the villain of the piece, the dastardly Lord Wessex, who gets the lovely, juicy lines – as is usually the case – and Jason K. Ralph, looking almost unrecognisable with his dashing dark beard, is delicious. And topping it all off, magnificently, is the powerhouse that is Robyn Scott as Queen Elizabeth. Born to the role. She must ALWAYS play queens if they are needed. Judging by the audience applause at the end, I was not alone in considering her a highlight of the show – which is difficult, seeing there were so many bright stars.

'Shakespeare in Love'

A comedy with poignant moments, a tragedy within a farce, Blackadder meets the Bard (as some have suggested) in this extremely entertaining – and very clever – adaptation. If there is one quibble – okay, make it two – it is these: the second half felt a bit slower and longer than the first. But this has to do with the script, so no foul where the direction is concerned. And we could (all) have seen more of the dog. Queen Elizabeth would have agreed.

What: Review Shakespeare In Love
Where, when: The Fugard Theatre, Cape Town, from 10 October to 25 November 2017
Book: Computicket and the Fugard Theatre box office 021 461 4554
WS