In love with Shakespeare: the Citadel’s season-opener is a sumptuous love letter to theatre

Andrew Chown and Bahareh Yaraghi in Shakespeare in Love, Citadel Theatre. Photo by David Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

In the entertainment world there’s no shortage of movies transformed into stage extravaganzas (thank Disney for a slew of them). It happens all the time, with motives no one would call pure. So it’s a special occasion, a homecoming, when a story born onscreen seems to find its true and natural footing in the theatre.   

That’s exactly what happens in Shakespeare in Love. The stage version of a delightful 1998 Marc Norman/ Tom Stoppard movie is an irresistible opening for the new Citadel mainstage in this lavish 20-actor production by the company’s new artistic director Daryl Cloran.

Shakespeare in Love is about the theatre, after all. It lives there. In witty, affectionate fashion it celebrates the maddening and magical world of pretend and its frantic disciples who somehow, mysteriously, get at the heart of what’s real. By the end of the evening, it might even cross your mind to wonder why anyone ever thought Shakespeare in Love should have been a movie in the first place.

This, my friends, is a funny, sexy, touching evening. Welcome to the dynamic, competitive world of Elizabethan theatre in the 1590s — with its fractious playhouses, its hunger for new hits and backers, its shortage of cash and scramble for credit, its big egos and rising newcomers.

Designer Cory Sincennes, who’s risen to the occasion in every way, creates an world that references multi-layered wood-lined Elizabethan playhouses like the Globe and the Rose, with movable pillars, panels and screens that take us to Whitehall or an actors’ tavern in a blink. And Scott Henderson’s burnished lighting comes from a imaginative range of lanterns and golden flickers. And the only word for Sincennes’ velvet and brocade costumes, extravagantly individualized, is sumptuous.   

“I think he has potential,” says the ever-beleaguered theatre manager Henslowe (Garett Ross) of a young upstart named Shakespeare (Andrew Chown), who’s promised him “a comedy with a love story and a bit for a dog.” Working title: Romeo and Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter.

Ah yes, the dog; there has to be a dog. Shakespeare in Love is amusingly sly on the ways theatre has of accommodating art to “The Money,” as Fennyman (Ashley Wright) introduces himself bursting into a rehearsal, and to the sponsors and the stars. There’s sport to be had in revealing that showbiz hasn’t changed a whole helluva lot in five centuries. “The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster,” as Henslowe sums up his chosen line of work.     

The anachronisms are playful. “Thank you, and now for your modern piece,” says Will, glumly auditioning completely unsuitable actors for his as-yet-unwritten Romeo in a very funny scene of ill-fated cameos. When anyone asks where Shakespeare’s new play is set, the reaction is the same: “Verona, again?” A boatman ferrying Will and his lead actor — “hmm, haven’t I seen you in something?” — produces a weighty script of his own for perusal. “Strangely enough, I’m a bit of a writer myself….” The rehearsal scenes are a riot, as usual a battleground for the nervous and the high-powered.  

And the play is larky, too, in salting the script with Shakespeare allusions and quotes in ways that are sneaky or as shameless as “Spot! Spot!  Out, damn Spot!” when the only four-legged cast member flattens one of his two-legged cast-mates backstage. Spot incidentally will have a more edifying moment later in the story.

In fact, Shakespeare in Love IS actually a comedy, with love, and a bit with a dog. And the love story is, cleverly, double. At the start we meet the playwright who will be the biggest big shot in theatre history oppressed by deadlines, in the throes of writer’s block, bailed out word by word by his helpful rival Kit Marlowe (Gabe Grey).

When he meets stage-smitten upper-crust Viola de Lesseps (Bahareh Yaraghi), who’s disguised as a boy to get around the age’s proscription against females onstage, he falls in love. Suddenly he has a muse. And as his own real-life forbidden love story gets star-cross’d, the immortal heart-stopping tragedy we know emerges, pirate-free.

The intertwining of the stories gets faster and faster, and the stakes mount, until the scene, cleverly staged by Cloran, in which Romeo and Juliet revolves before us and we see it from the perspectives of both the backstage comic chaos and onstage lyrical heartbreak. If there ever was a physical metaphor for the co-existence of laughter and tears onstage this is it.

Bahareh Yaraghi and Andrew Chown in Shakespeare in Love. Photo by David Cooper.

Chown and Yaraghi make for combustible chemistry together.  As the young Shakespeare, the former, impetuous, passionate, and more than a little exasperated with the constraints of his theatre world, charts an incremental fits-and-starts growth of confidence with real thoughtfulness and physical eloquence. And Yaraghi, who has an interestingly angled voice, is luminous: she conjures in a visceral way the seductive reverb that words can set off in body and soul.

There’s an array of zestful comic acting in Cloran’s production. Ross for one is very droll as Henslowe, the theatre manager who’s a master of the stop-gap excuse, perpetually on the brink of financial ruin, wheedling away to defer the conflicting demands of his artists and his creditors. I love Wright as the hard-bitten money man who proves an instant convert to theatre once he’s given a small part in the play. In every flounce and grimace, John Ullyatt, who has a bristling array of precise accents at his command, nails the purse-lipped censor and sycophant Lord Chamberlain who hurls disapproval like a man spitting out rancid sunflower husks.  

You’ll get a kick out of Tom Keenan’s performance in a tiny but crucial role as the bloodthirsty scrapper who turns out to be the future Jacobean revenge playwright John Webster. Sarah Constable is a tart-tongued Queen Elizabeth. And as rival actor/directors, the bombastic Ned Alleyn and the authoritative Richard Burbage, in whom the collaborative spirit of theatre can’t help but prevail when the chips are down, Kayvon Khoshkam and Paul Essiembre are both excellent.

Shakespeare in Love. Photo by David Cooper.

Like the plays they contain, including this one, theatre is one impediment after another, as Henslowe concedes. “But it always works out in the end.” How?, someone is always bound to ask. “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

Exactly. That’s the beguiling attraction of it. 

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