Shakespeare in Love stage adaptation a crowd pleaser for romantics at heart

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre opens its season with a faithful adaptation of the hit 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love, and a solidly faithful and crowd-pleasing production of that adaptation.

Royal MTC opens season with faithful production of faithful adaptation of 1998 hit movie

Andrew Chown as William Shakespeare and Bahareh Yaraghi as Viola de Lesseps (in disguise as a male actor) have a believably steamy chemistry in the Royal MTC and Citadel Theatre's crowd-pleasing production of Shakespeare in Love. (David Cooper)

William Shakespeare's words are now so familiar it's hard to imagine a world without them. Yet there was a time they didn't exist — and chances are even Will sometimes suffered from a bit of writer's block while getting them out.

That's where Shakespeare in Love, Lee Hall's 2014 play based on the hit 1998 movie (a winner of multiple Oscars, including one, lamentably, for its now disgraced producer, Harvey Weinstein), begins.

If you've seen the movie, the stage adaptation — kicking off the Royal MTC's season in a co-production with Edmonton's Citadel Theatre, where this production opened last month — will be familiar, since it doesn't stray too far from the source material. It's a faithful adaptation, and a solidly faithful production of that adaptation.

It begins with a young Shakespeare (Andrew Chown) struggling with his latest play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. His writer's block is shaken only when he falls hopelessly in love with the unattainable Viola (Bahareh Yaraghi), who is betrothed to the detestable Wessex (a perfectly slimy Kevin Klassen).

Meanwhile, she disguises herself as a man in order to gain access to her first love, the theatre — a male-only pursuit in that time — and perform the work of Shakespeare, the wordsmith she quickly falls for.

Their passionate affair inspires what will become Romeo and Juliet, and life imitates art as art imitates life.

Director Daryl Cloran choreographs the onstage action impressively in Shakespeare in Love. His 20-member cast deliver some delightful comic performances. (David Cooper)

Hall's script, like Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's original screenplay, is full of clever metatheatricality and sly jokes for Shakespeare and theatre fans. It also allows ample opportunity for great comedic takes from the cast of 20, and they rise impressively to the occasion.

There are delightful performances throughout the large ensemble, like Tom Keenan's intensely weird boy actor, Webster, Sarah Constible's icy and acerbic take on Queen Elizabeth, Gabe Grey's mercurial Christopher Marlowe and Kayvon Khoshkam's marvelously pompous prima donna, Ned Alleyn.

Director Daryl Cloran's production doesn't shy away from broad comedy — sometimes a bit too broad and hammy, but more often likably silly, although its comic timing didn't always snap quite as sharply as it should on opening night.

He choreographs the onstage action impressively, though, with scenes that often involve a stage full of actors never becoming cluttered or confusing, and a brisk pace to its 140-minute running time.

As Viola de Lesseps, Bahareh Yaraghi handles the Shakespearean text of the play within the play as impressively as she does the comedy of Lee Hall's script. (David Cooper)

Besides being a comedy, this is also a love story — and as such, relies heavily on its leads. Thankfully, Chown and Yaraghi bear that weight admirably.

Chown brings boyish charm and some great comic timing to the lovestruck Shakespeare, more a struggling and sometimes bumbling writer than the towering dramatist we've come to picture him as.

Yaraghi's Viola is not nearly as well-written, but she still brings the sense of an equal to Will — a passionate woman in love with the theatre before she falls for Shakespeare. She handles the Shakespearean text of the play within the play as impressively as she does the comedy of Hall's script. 

Together, the leads have a believably steamy chemistry.

The world they inhabit is also easy to believe in, thanks to some stunning work from set and costume designer Cory Sincennes. 

Designer Cory Sincennes provides stunning sets and costumes for Shakespeare in Love. (David Cooper)

Music by Paddy Cunneen — some instrumental, some beautifully sung by cast members — is sparingly and tastefully used, and adds emotional resonance to some key scenes.

It may be just a bit shy of swoon-worthy theatre, but it's most definitely and unabashedly crowd pleasing (right down to the appearance of a scene-stealing dog). Romantics at heart will find enough to love with Shakespeare in Love.

Shakespeare in Love runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's John Hirsch Mainstage until Nov. 11.