Shakespeare in Love director, Declan Donnellan, in conversation with David Prosser, Literary and Editorial Director at the Stratford Festival.
What first attracted you to this play?
I loved the film. It’s a wonderful piece of work, extremely well directed and written. Then when I was asked to do the play, I thought about it and realized that it’s not so much about Shakespeare; it’s about Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare. It’s Stoppard’s dream of Shakespeare. I found that extraordinary – and moving.
The other thing that attracted me is that it’s about this strange mystic moment that divides people who go into the theatre from the rest of us. Most people who go into the theatre business have it around the age of sixteen or seventeen: they see something in the theatre and experience a kind of falling in love. They feel incredibly alive and they immediatelyknow, “This is the thing that I have to do.”
It’s not even really love: it’s a need, an addiction, even. And they’re frightened it’ll be taken away from them. So there’s a joy about it but also a compulsion. And that’s brilliantly articulated in Shakespeare in Love. Viola has it, a young woman who lives for this one amazing moment when she becomes Britain’s first actress. And even Fennyman has it. I don’t think those are side issues to the main plot. To me, the play honours that moment, that driven and crazy moment.
How closely did you and the original company work with playwright Lee Hall on creating the adaptation?
Very closely. The company worked at great length and in great depth, and we made an enormous amount of changes all the way through the period of preparation and all the way through the rehearsal as well. It arose very organically. There are things that we can do on stage, transformations we can make through theatre, that you can’t do on film. And that’s rather wonderful.
The play is about the theatre, and the idea of the company is fundamental to that. Falling in love with the theatre has to do with becoming a member of a group, participating in an ensemble. It becomes a kind of family.
One of the charms of the play, and of the film, is the way it imports contemporary British speech into its Elizabethan setting.
Tom Stoppard has an amazing ear. Like a magpie, he observes and gathers and catches. I don’t know if people here will get this, but “I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of my boat once”: that’s very much the London taxi driver. You hear that all the time: “I had that – insert name of film star – in the back of my cab once.”
It’s very funny, but there’s also something incredibly human about it. There are cadences of some lines that are just so alive. And as a director, I know that’s very rare: people who can put that kind of life into their writing. There’s lots of worthy writing, earnest writing, clever writing, but there’s not a lot that just catches the actual sound of life itself.
Shakespeare himself was a bit of a magpie, wasn’t he?
In The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus describes himself as a “snapper up of unconsidered trifles.” That’s a marvellous line. But in a way, that’s all anyone who’s an artist can do: lift things from life. Great artists aren’t so much creative as curious. They see something outside themselves and they know how to choose it and incorporate it. The dreadful thing is when we start to be “creative” and think, “It’s all about me and my sense of creation.” And we get stuck in the inner sense of me: “What’s my production going to be about? What do I want to say?”
Shakespeare in Love does its own lifting: from Romeo and Juliet.
We tend to sentimentalize Romeo and Juliet so much that we forget that they do a really stupid thing. They have an incredible death wish: they know they’re going to kill themselves. If you analyze the verse, they’re always talking, right from the very beginning, about death, night, death, night: these patterns of imagery keep coming up. When you’re younger, you think what they do is wonderful. But it’s actually really stupid.
That’s something that feeds into Shakespeare in Love. Will and Viola don’t do the dumb thing. They could have destroyed their lives, but they actually do something more mature than Romeo and Juliet. They’re hard-headed, not self-destructive.
What do you hope people will take away from this play?
I always hope that when people see anything that I’ve done, they’ll be moved. Then I hope they’ll think about what was moving, and then that they’ll try to ask themselves why they were moved. You make a piece of theatre hoping that people will have an emotional reaction to it. But there’s always something slightly troubling about that reaction. In general, when something moves me, my next thought is, what is moving about that? What was that that struck me so much? What does it have to do with me? Why did that get to me?
And what answer do you come up with?
I must say, it’s a mystery to me.