These past few weeks have found me with more time on my hands than usual due to feeling, as my mother would say: “Not myself Today”.
To fill my idle mind I found an unwatched DVD of Tim Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love. Over 20 years old, this film starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow (before she grew rich and balmy) still feels fresh and for any lover of Elizabeth London is essential watching.
There is a boatman (the predecessor of London cabbies) who ferries Shakespeare across the Thames while bragging, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.” After another crossing, as Shakespeare steps ashore, the boatman tries to give him a script to read. The contemporary feel of the humour (like Shakespeare’s coffee mug, inscribed ‘Souvenir of Stratford-Upon-Avon’) makes for a very accessible journey into the Shakespearean theatre.
Philip Henslowe the owner and producer of the Rose Theatre has advanced money for Will’s latest working title: ‘Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter’, but our playwright has writer’s block and is just practising his signature. This amongst a host of contemporary references: Shakespeare had many spellings to his name; street cries pay reference to the Bard’s writings “A curse on both your houses; A Rose by any other name”, among others.
The film opens with Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) demanding monies owed from Henslowe by: “holding his feet to the fire”.
In Shakespearean theatre, it was conventional not to notice the gender disguises (in fact I’ve watched an excellent all-women Taming of the Shrew at the Globe), and Shakespeare in Love asks us to grant the same leeway, as Viola first plays a woman auditioning to play a man and later plays a man playing a woman. As the young man auditioning to play Romeo, Viola wears a moustache and trousers and yet somehow inspires stirrings in Will’s breeches; later, at a dance, he sees her as a woman and falls instantly in love.
With Will’s love interest ignited his writer’s block disappears and he finds himself writing one of the world’s greatest plays. Like Romeo and Ethel, both “Star cross lovers” their love is doomed as Viola is to be married in two weeks to the odious Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), who will trade his title for her father’s cash.
The title of the play is suggested by vain Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) who was London Elizabethan theatre’s greatest actor at the time and to his surprise finds his character dies in Act 3.
Like the play we know today, the film is a romance that leaps across barriers of wealth, titles and class. The story is ingeniously Shakespearean in its dimensions, including high and low comedy, coincidences, masquerades and jokes about itself.
At the same time we get a good sense of how the audience was deployed in the theatres, where they stood or sat and what their view was like, and also information about costuming, props and stagecraft, this was, after all, a city in which 1 in 10 went to the theatre every week.
It all goes to show that London, the West End and cabbies have hardly changed these past 400 years.