It is not often that a cabbie gets to play a seminal role in a play, but this happens in one of the scenes from Shakespeare in Love written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, with a little help from the Bard.
Knowing this scene I just had to see the stage version based on the original film, the only surprising thing is that it has taken so long to transfer from the big screen to the Noel Coward Theatre in London’s West End.
[T]his romantic comedy is set in Bankside towards the end of the 16th century where a young Shakespeare has writing block. The script liberally sprinkled with quotes from his later works, many I’m sure unnoticed by me, has all the ingredients of Elizabethan theatre: mistaken identities, cross dressing, satire and huge egos that have to be managed.
This is a play, within a play as we watch the play unfold. Shakespeare superbly played by Tom Bateman is writing Romeo and Ethel, daughter of the Pirate King. Contemporary playwrite Christopher Marlowe (Edward Franklin) compounds Shakespeare’s his writer’s block by having all the ideas, the money men assert their power and menace, while managers feel they can construct a better plot than the writer.
The stage design is of the galleried shape of an Elizabethan theatre, this by clever transformation becomes: back-of-stage; the visible stage; Viola de Lesseps’ house, the focus of Shakespeare amour; simple street scenes; and even the boat scene when a river boatman, the predecessor of today’ cabbie, inadvertently tells the love struck Shakespeare that promising actor Thomas Kent and Viola de Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen) the love of his life are one of the same:
Thomas Kent/Viola: Boatman. Down river. De Lesseps Hall, please. On the double.
The boat is about to pull away when Will comes running.
He catches the boat up and leaps on board.
Boatman: Steady on guvnor.
Thomas Kent/Viola: Will!
Will: I have to speak to you.
Boatman: Hang on a minute. I know your face. You’re an actor. I saw you in something.
Will: Very possibly.
Boatman: What was it? The one with a king.
Thomas Kent/Viola: Please, I’m in a hurry.
Boatman: I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of my boat once.
Will and Thomas Kent then engage in earnest conversion about the love of Wills life – Viola de Lesseps.
On arrival at De Lesseps Hall Thomas Kent runs off throwing money at the boatman.
Boatman: Thanks M’Lady.
Boatman: Viola de Lesseps. Knew her since she was this high. Always a bit of a tomboy. But the facial hair is a big surprise.
Will is in shock.
Boatman: Strangely enough I’m a bit of a writer myself.
The Boatman produces a brick-sized manuscript.
It wouldn’t take you long to read it. ‘Spect you know all the booksellers . . .
It all goes to show that London, the West End and cabbies have hardly changed these past 400 years.
When I saw the play the events in Paris had just culminated in their tragic end, and the irony of the Lord Chamberlain of Elizabethan England trying to censor art by closing the theatre because a woman had appeared on stage was rather telling.
And the play? If you love the theatre and London – highly recommended.