It’s 1593 and William Shakespeare is composing his masterpiece Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. At least, he is in Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s droll faux-depiction of history, deftly adapted here by playwright Lee Hall. The multiple layers involved in bringing the 1998 film to stage seem apt for a piece that is all about authorship and creativity. And in Declan Donnellan’s witty, rumbustious and largely enjoyable production, it becomes a touching comedy and a mischievous love letter to theatre.
There’s trouble at the Rose Theatre. Money problems, inter-playhouse rivalries and a busybody censor all frustrate the progress of a new crowd-pleaser – as does the fact that the Bard is suffering from serious writer’s block. It’s only when young Shakespeare falls headlong in love with stage-struck noblewoman Viola De Lesseps that the, er, juices begin to flow and, with substantial help from his mate Christopher Marlowe, he begins to fashion a love story.
Viola (a lovely, impetuous Lucy Briggs-Owen), meanwhile, has her own plans. Like many a Shakespearean heroine, she dons a pair of breeches and finds her true nature – not in Illyria or the Forest of Arden, but on stage.
The interplay between life and art, already there in the script, becomes the heart of Donnellan’s production. All the world’s on stage here: Nick Ormerod’s timber Elizabethan theatre set comfortably accommodates both tavern and palace. Echoes of Shakespeare’s plays run through the piece, which bristles with literary gags (some better than others), Paddy Cunneen’s period-inflected live music weaves into the story and every move is watched by the ever-present crew of actors. We never forget that we are in a theatre, that this is artifice: the magic, as Donnellan’s staging reminds us, is that from this tangle of wigs, greasepaint and nerves can come moments of great, transporting truth.
It is that, coupled with the friction between the Romantic ideal of the tortured artist – referenced in Tom Bateman’s tousle-haired, anguished Shakespeare – and the reality of a collaborative artform, that drives this staging. It’s rather laboured in places and some of the jokes are heavy-handed or overworked. But this is a joyous, poignant show, delivered by a crack ensemble and peppered with enjoyable performances: notably David Oakes as an impish Marlowe and Anna Carteret as a canny Elizabeth I. She gets her wish: a play that shows the nature of love. But even greater here is the passion for the warm, bubbling humanity of the artform itself.