YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre mark their tenth anniversary with a rollicking celebration of the joys of theatre, Shakespeare In Love.
Adapted for the stage by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1999 film, the Elizabethan love story will be performed under the direction of Bard buff Mark Hird at Theatre@ 41, Monkgate, from tomorrow (1/4/2022) to April 9.
First staged by Sonia Friedman Productions in the West End with Cheek By Jowl’s Declan Donnellan in the director’s chair in 2014, Hall’s play was snapped up for its York premiere by Pick Me Up’s ever-alert founder, artistic director, designer and producer, Robert Readman (who will be making a rare appearance as actor Ned Alleyn).
“When Robert got the rights, I read it, and straightaway I thought, ‘my god, it’s brilliant’, with Stoppard and Norman as the starting point for the fantastic script, and Lee Hall then transforming it into a great piece of theatre,” says director Mark Hird.
“Anyone who thinks this Shakespeare In Love will be just the film on stage, it’s absolutely not. It’s so theatrical, and that makes it such a joy to put on. That’s what so special about it: it’s a love letter to theatre as well as being a great love story.
“Anyone who comes to the play who loves theatre will leave with a great big smile on their face at all the theatrical allusions. Lee Hall has put even more theatre aficionado jokes in there.”
Shakespeare In Love delights in the love story of struggling young playwright Will Shakespeare (played by George Stagnell) and feisty, free-spirited young noblewoman Viola de Lesseps (Sanna Jeppsson), his greatest admirer, who helps him to overcome writer’s block and becomes his muse.
She will stop at nothing, even breaking the law and dressing as a boy actor to appear in his next play, whereupon, in this turbulent world of mistaken identity, ruthless scheming and backstage theatrics, Will’s love for Viola quickly blossoms, inspiring him to write his breakthrough romantic drama, Romeo and Juliet.
“Basically, you have Will Shakespeare right back in the early days of his career, having done Titus Andronicus, Two Gentlemen Of Verona and Henry VI, but he’s not yet had a big hit,” says Mark.
“All Marlowe’s plays are being bigger hits at the time, and in fact there’s a lot more of Kit Marlowe in the play than there was in the film,” says George.
“But the love story is still at the heart of the play, and it’s as beautiful on stage as it was in the film, but there’s now a lot more changes of energy, moving back and forth from the chaotic rehearsals, and all the fun that goes with that, interspersed with the love story,” says Mark.
Sanna first saw the film on Swedish TV with Swedish subtitles before moving to Britain and has watched it again since landing her role as the ground-breaking Viola. “She’s a very brave woman, doing something that was forbidden at the time; something she wouldn’t be allowed to do, being in a space she wouldn’t have had access to as herself, having to take the guise of a boy actor, Thomas Kent,” she says.
“Being on stage, feeling so alive for the first time, I can connect with that. I remember going on a backstage tour of Mamma Mia!, and then getting to go out on to this amazing stage and looking at all those seats, and wanting to be on there performing.
“That’s what I bring with me when Viola comes on as Thomas Kent, knowing she shouldn’t be there, and normally could only imagine the audience looking at her.”
“I always like to go on stage before a show, when the auditorium is empty,” says George. “When it’s quiet and no-one’s there, you take the space in and imagine how it will erupt with life. It’s like the calm before the storm.”
Mark adds: “There’s something about an empty theatre: you can feel the presence of the ghosts of all those who have been there before.”
Sanna rejoins: “A theatre is a space where anything can happen, that moment of magic and then it’s gone.”
George has focused on playing young Will Shakespeare, not the feted Bard. “Pretty much since day one, I’ve had to come in not thinking ‘this is William Shakespeare’,” he says. “I don’t want to have that mentality of thinking about who he became, but to see him as this young man trying to find his way through a very complicated time in history, in the early days of his writing, when there was a lot of history that we don’t know and a lot of conjecture.”
Mark concurs: “That’s what’s so gorgeous about this piece. We all think we know about Shakespeare, but here we are watching a three-dimensional character called Will.”
Sanna had studied Shakespeare “a little bit at school, but not in its original language”, when growing up in Molkom, but when she lived out her long-held dream of moving to London in 2013, she attended the International College of Musical Theatre, rather than focusing on classical theatre.
“Almost every other person in London is an actor, which makes it hard there, and so I moved to York in 2019, where I now work as a civil servant for the Ministry of Justice, sitting on in trials sometimes.”
From courtroom dramas, Sanna’s attention now switches to courtship dramas on stage.
Pick Me Up Theatre in Shakespeare In Love, Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, April 1 to 9, 7.30pm, except April 3 and 4; 2.30pm, April 2, 3 and 9 . Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Copyright of The Press, York