A famous movie about a famous historical playwright co-written by a famous contemporary playwright is now a play adapted from that screenplay by a playwright best known for a screenplay. Which is perhaps only fitting for a play about a woman pretending to be a man so that she can act in a play written by the man she loves.
“Shakespeare in Love” is a 1998 film (the year’s Oscar winner for best picture) about the imaginary Viola de Lesseps’ love affair with the very real William Shakespeare. Perhaps best described as a historical romantic dramedy, the movie was directed by John Madden and co-written by screenwriter Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard. It became both a box office success and a critical darling, so perhaps it’s no surprise that in today’s world of cross-media pollination it was ripe for a stage adaptation.
Written by Lee Hall, a playwright best known for writing the screenplay to “Billy Elliott,” the stage adaptation of “Shakespeare in Love” premiered in London in 2014. Now that adaptation graces the stage at Austin Playhouse in a new production playing through April 22.
Hall’s play is remarkably faithful to the original screenplay, and it contains most of the film’s memorable scenes and lines. The script is so faithful, in fact, that it begs the question why there was a need to turn the film into a play in the first place.
Some of the film’s strongest aspects — the comparison of contemporary film acting with traditional Shakespearean acting, the faithful re-creation of Shakespeare’s London, the revelation of the seamier side of Elizabethan morals and mores, etc. — are unique to the filmic medium, and don’t make the leap onto the stage. Normally, when a popular film is adapted for a stage production, it is turned into a musical, rather than left as a straight drama, and Hall’s script sadly shows why this is the case.
Austin Playhouse’s production, though, helmed by director Don Toner and assistant director Lara Toner Haddock, is stylish and charming. Performed in the manner of a Shakespearean work — with actors taking on multiple roles, moving the set pieces themselves and singing a transitional chorus or two — it seamlessly melds poetic textual homage with the story’s more farcical, humorous side. The epic-sized cast of 20 performers does a good job walking this line between the classic and the contemporary, ably led by Stephen Mercantel as a lovesick, longing Shakespeare and Claire Grasso as an adventurous, vivacious Viola.
“Shakespeare in Love” is certainly not a play that redefines the ways in which theater and film can influence one another, but it is a perfectly lovely and faithful adaptation of the movie that die-hard fans should enjoy.
“SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through April 22
Where: 6001 Airport Blvd.