Tom Sutcliffe brushes up on his Shakespeare

I never saw the film of Shakespeare in Love. But I was invited to a Gala performance of the play which Lee Hall has crafted out of the film script and parted with a modest contribution to the restoration of the Rose Theatre not far from where Shakespeare’s Globe now sits across the Thames from St Paul’s. It’s an eye-catching site, though not in fact historic.

Do we need another fake historic reconstruction? Why are we so grabbed by dubious authenticity? What is it about candle-lit performances at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which was going to be known as the Inigo Jones theatre when first mooted? What about counter-tenors singing operatic roles written for castrati or the alto parts in Bach Passions? Why is Shakespeare never done with the women’s roles

played by boys? I suppose every attempt at reviving ancient practices and reaffirming established truths from the distant past is in fact an exercise in taste, a fashion that may be well rooted or may be newfangled.

At the Prebendal School, Chichester, when I was a 10-year-old choirboy in 1953 we used to read Julius Caesar and Macbeth round the class, and those who weren’t up to it did not get to read much. Mrs Salwey, whose Canon husband had died and who sang contralto rather lushly in the cathedral choir, used to make us greet her at the start of each lesson with ‘Salve, Mrs Salwey’ as we saluted. We did not act Shakespeare, though I remember adoring an Aristophanes comedy put on alfresco in front of the bishop’s palace by theologs studying under Dr John Moorman.

Plodding dialogue

Lee Hall’s play opens with Shakespeare in a pub trying to compose a sonnet starting ‘Shall I… shall I…. Shall I compare thee…’ The idea is comical and absurd – the Bard as a student tourist today – but the tone is set. Based at some remove on Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon’s very entertaining 1941 novel No Bed for Bacon, the Hollywoodish romanticization of Shakespeare is less irritating than the plodding dialogue which really does seem lame when extracts from Romeo and Juliet are spun out in a supposed command performance. The supporting characters are cardboard. The jokes and games are cheap and vulgar.

But the most annoying aspect of the whole experience is the implication that there was something wrong with Shakespeare’s theatre because it did not use real women. The plot is about a stage-struck privilege beauty called Viola de Lesseps who is desperate to tread the boards and so disguises herself as a boy (Twelfth Night springs to mind, of course). Tom Stoppard’s revision of the story and Lee Hall’s play distil the romance between Will and Viola and introduce a lot more intrigue and flimflam – plus a suitable dose of low-life and backstage ‘reality’. But the Shakespeare presented on stage at the Noel Coward Theatre never seems capable of hiding complex feelings the way the author of the Sonnets does, let alone bringing out such a wealth of wisdom and perception as the author of the plays invariably does.

Different balance

It is partly because Shakespeare is so unknown except in the works he left that people relish the romancing in which Shakespeare in Love affectionately indulges. The balance in the play is different from how the incidents proceed in the novel. One has no sense of a poet of the theatre who improved by adaptation and conversion of already existing material. I imagine Shakespeare did not talk about what he was doing, that he was not romantic but practical, that he was fundamentally cautious and never gave opinions away. He was such a quiet professional, able to reconceive established plays or stories that did not work. Yet Lee Hall’s play following in Stoppard’s footprints turns out a clichéd leading man whose conversations and reactions are basic and tawdry.

Flimsy stuff

How could a distinguished set-up like Cheek by Jowl take to such flimsy stuff without feeling ashamed for the sheer crass commercialization of it all? Top price tickets are £57.50, and the cheapest seats are £15. But as the show went on I did succumb to the charm of some of the actors, and the energy and ‘just might have been’ quality of the romance. In live theatre there is always the physical reality that sometimes can make one forgive material that is only workmanlike. Lucy Briggs-Owen as the would-be thespian Viola has done a lot with the RSC. I find I saw her at the Belgrade, Coventry in Horvath’s Don Juan Comes Home from the War, a good production that got no public. With Tom Bateman as Will there’s no doubt about the star quality of the performing, even if what happens and is said is pretty low grade. How could I resist Anna Carteret’s spikey Queen Elizabeth or David Oakes’s Marlowe?

There are 28 actors on stage including musicians. I wish the music and the singing had been better. You would never know Shakespeare’s was also a great era of original extraordinary English music. But this is commercial theatre. The play is there because tourists need entertainment. I thought as I emerged from the theatre (which used to be called the Albery and before that the New Theatre) how wonderful it would be to have a private company of that size able to tackle all sorts of great plays, works that really matter and need fine acting. I thought of other evenings in that theatre – of plays that matter and stir deeply. There really do need to be ensembles as the mainstay of our English theatres up and down the country which can create memorable productions of great works and play them in repertory.

If Germany can do it why can’t we?