Ghazal Azarbad & Charlie Gallant in the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production of Shakespeare in Love. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Ghazal Azarbad & Charlie Gallant in the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production of Shakespeare in Love. Photo by Tim Matheson.

While Shakespeare in Love is most definitely a love story, if you dig a little deeper it can be so much more.

Marking the first time Bard on the Beach has presented a non-Shakespeare play on its mainstage, this faithful stage adaptation of the 1998 Academy Award-winning film follows a young Will Shakespeare as he overcomes writer’s block, allowing him to finish his latest play.

His muse? Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who is infatuated with the theatre. Defying the laws of the time prohibiting women to appear on stage, she disguises herself as Thomas Kent to the land the role of Romeo in Will’s current work-in-progress.

But while Viola’s initial attraction may be the stage, she soon finds herself falling in love with Will. Not surprisingly, Will reciprocates and their own blossoming romance becomes fodder for one of his greatest works, Romeo and Juliet. Complicating matters though, is Viola’s father who has promised her to Lord Wessex in an exchange of money for title.

Shakespeare in Love is much more than the love story between Will and Viola, as it also has great fun making connections between this imagined romance and Shakespeare’s work. And while Romeo and Juliet might be at its centre, there are also many clever references to other plays in the Bard’s canon.

It even manages to go deeper, in celebrating theatre itself. It is here where Shakespeare in Love finds its biggest pleasures, and the bulk of its laughs, thanks to the focus provided by director Daryl Cloran.

Despite Cloran’s focus though, not everything works. In particular there is an extended scene between the rival theatre owners which at times not only felt messy, but overstayed its welcome.  And set designer Cory Sincennes’ small turntable is vastly underutilized for the bulk of the show, and it isn’t until the final scenes where it finally does proves its worth. Sincennes does shine though as costume designer, bringing consistently gorgeous costumes to the production.

Members of the cast of the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production of Shakespeare in Love. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Members of the cast of the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production of Shakespeare in Love. Photo by Tim Matheson.

Helping to bring its multiple levels together is the same cast who so effectively brought The Taming of the Shrew to life as the other half of this year’s Bard on the Beach mainstage offerings.

Proving they can perform the “real” stuff, it is not surprising they can also handle the pseudo-Shakespeare of this contemporary piece. And in those scenes where Lee Hall, who is responsible for this stage adaptation, lifts directly from Shakespeare, they are simply divine.

As Viola and Will, it may take some time for sparks to start flying between Ghazal Azarbad and Charlie Gallant, but the two ultimately make a believable connection, especially in the final scenes as they bring Romeo and Juliet to life on stage.

Azarbad is particularly good here, especially in her ability to find the pleasures in Shakespeare’s own words. Gallant brings a sustained and satisfying charisma to the role of Will.

Among its other players, Scott Bellis gives us a manic Henslowe, and Anton Lipovetsky continues to prove his comedic worth as Lord Wessex. Other standouts include Austin Eckert as the self-confident Kit Marlowe, Jason Sakaki as the young actor Sam, and Kamyar Pazandeh has great fun as celebrated actor Ned Alleyn.

Susinn McFarlen is delightful as Nurse, Paul Moniz de Sá has great fun as the Queen’s Master, Edmund Tilney, and proving once again there are no small roles, Jennifer Lines makes the absolute most of her brief appearances as Queen Elizabeth I.

While Shakespeare in Love may be somewhat of a risk for Bard on the Beach, it is a calculated one. By working on multiple levels, Shakespeare in Love may very well be a stepping stone for those wary of the festival’s more traditional offerings, while still managing to satisfy its more traditional audiences.

Shakespeare in Love based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Adapted for the stage by Lee Hall. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production. Playing in repertory on the BMO Mainstage in Vanier Park with The Taming of the Shrew until September 18. Visit bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.