Shakespeare steps from screen to the stage

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Claire van der Boom and Michael Wahr in “Shakespeare in Love”. Photo: Jeff Busby

Arts editor HELEN MUSA previews a new production of “Shakespeare in Love”.

THEATRE director Simon Phillips has been reflecting on the question of whether movies can effectively be turned into plays.

He should know the answer. Phillips is justly famous for his productions of musicals such as “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, the Musical, “Love Never Dies”, “Dream Lover”, “Ladies in Black” and now, “Muriel’s Wedding the Musical”.

Now he’s directing the production of “Shakespeare in Love” for Melbourne Theatre Company, which shortly after opening, will come to Canberra. It’s not a musical but music by Paddy Cunneen will be performed on stage by the ensemble.

Claire van der Boom and Michael Wahr in “Shakespeare in Love”. Photo: Jeff Busby

The play, adapted by Lee Hall from the screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, is based on the 1998 film starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow that won seven Oscars in 1998. 

Here’s the set-up: the youthful Will Shakespeare has a bad case of writer’s block and desperately needs a muse. His new comedy “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” has no heart, but then he meets Viola and a real-life Romeo and Juliet story starts to take hold. But Viola has a secret.

When we catch up with Phillips by phone to Melbourne, he’s just been on a flying trip to Sydney to put the finishing touches to “Muriel,” so the relationship between stage plays and films is very much on his mind.

It’s quite common, he thinks, for musicals to come from straight plays and for films to become musicals, but the one he believes least common is to go from a film to a straight play.

“Musicals based on movies are common enough because the structure of a movie and a musical can be somewhat compatible – the way you tell a story in a musical is in a quickfire set of scenes, just as in a movie.”

As well, he says, the people who produce musicals are always after recognised source material – “I suppose it’s reassuring for the production, everyone knows the film, so it must be okay.”

Another thing is the question of location. 

“It’s common in films to have many different sets, totally unlike Ibsen where we are sitting in a room… mind you, Shakespeare changes locations five times or more in a play,” he says.

Straight plays, he thinks, normally demand depth of character, but turning a movie into a play doesn’t lend itself to that.

The Melbourne Theatre Company has billed “Shakespeare in Love” as “a rollicking night of romance and backstage fun”.

“Maybe so, but there’s a kernel of affection and romance at the centre,” he says.

“The two leads fall in love and that story plays out.

“It’s going to be very interesting in the stage adaptation, which makes more use of the actual play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ than the film did.

“There is beautiful poetry which gives some level of real gravitas and romance.”

All the same, it’s true that his “wonderful cast” are having a rollicking time.

“I love it because it’s a light-hearted tribute to the power of the theatre to be transformative,” Phillips says. 

With “Shakespeare in Love”, there’s “something for the Bard lovers there for the taking if that’s your bent, but our play is not dependent on a knowledge of Shakespeare.”

Friends have asked Phillips: “Why come and see it on stage when I can just go and see the movie?”

“It’s a valid question, but when something is so theatrical it becomes a celebration of the theatre itself,” he says.

“It’s certainly a feat to put it on in the theatre, but the element of being live is an extra delight. I think of it as a beloved title being given a new outing.

“It’s a ‘coup de theatre’ – beautiful to look at, but still with the sense of being acted out on a bare Elizabethan stage.”

“Shakespeare in Love”, Canberra Theatre, August 22-August 31. Book at



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Helen Musa
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