"Shakespeare in Love" bows on London stage - with the dog

Wed Jul 23, 2014 6:17pm EDT
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - The 1998 hit movie "Shakespeare in Love" wove the Bard's famous words into a Hollywood romantic comedy. Now it's back in a stage version that retains the sly humor of Tom Stoppard's script while making it all seem a bit more Shakespearean.

The play that opened at London's Noel Coward theater on Wednesday night, backed by Disney and leading British producer Sonia Freedman, inevitably lacks the star power of Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare, Gwyneth Paltrow - who won an Oscar for best actress - as Viola de Lesseps and Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I.

But Tom Bateman as Shakespeare and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Viola bring an engaging and youthful energy to a script adopted from the screenplay by Stoppard and co-writer Marc Norman. Like the film, the play superimposes highlights from "Romeo and Juliet" over the story of penniless Will and the heiress Viola, their affair doomed by England's class system.

It is acted out on a wooden stage upon a stage, meant to be the Rose Theater in London, summer of 1593, with a huge cast of 28.

The hardworking crew plays everyone from actors, innkeepers, an irate play investor who wants his money back and the theater-loving Queen Elizabeth I to officers of the crown, a nurse and a band of musicians, including a high-pitched countertenor and instrumentalists who can perform a smashing Irish jig.

In case you loved the movie and feared that the stage show, directed by the inventive Declan Donnellan, might have left out one of its best running gags, there is a dog.

Also retained is the memorable line when the stage-struck virgin Viola, who has met her idol Shakespeare by posing as a man and obtaining the male lead in "Romeo and Juliet", reveals who she is. They make love, after which she sighs: "I would not have thought it: there IS something better than a play."