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An ode to Shakespeare

Simon Phillips directs the ultimate romantic comedy – Shakespeare in Love.

By Sarah Corridon

Director Simon Phillips’s first memory of Shakespeare in Love was watching the 1998 film and being amazed at how the narrative so deftly operated on two distinct levels. The first was the artful way Shakespeare’s love story, Romeo and Juliet, was woven into the narrative, and the second was the script’s implicit appreciation of the stage.

‘The way the story celebrates theatre without being too self-conscious about it was deeply satisfying for me,’ he says. After closing MTC’s 2018 Season with a blockbuster production of Twelfth Night, Phillips feels ready to tackle another story rooted in the rites and rituals of Elizabethan theatre. Just as the film did, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay continues to take liberty with the period and course of the events in Shakespeare’s life. However, this historical inaccuracy doesn’t faze Phillips, he claims. ‘If it wasn’t done so playfully, perhaps I’d take issue with it, but it’s so artful and full of spirit all we can do is celebrate it.’

‘We don’t actually know that much about the man,’ he continues, ‘there’s a huge amount of conjecture about whether or not he even wrote these plays. For me it’s less about Shakespeare the person, and more about the fact he left this almost inconceivably brilliant body of work. And this story taps into some of the heartbeat of that.’

Having directed a number of Stoppard’s plays in Australia, Phillips was approached to tackle the next iteration of Shakespeare in Love. The original stage production premiered in London in 2014 with a cast of 29 actors playing 23 characters, plus four musicians who doubled as ensemble members. This gave the play the structure of a musical, making it financially unviable, Phillips says. His challenge now is to tell the same story with half the cast. ‘I knew MTC was the place to bring this,’ he says grinning; thrilled by the challenge. ‘The Company has the same sense of adventure as me.’

Hall’s script prescribes a specific style, which is both comedic and theatrical. ‘To be funny, the play needs to be set in Elizabethan times; however the language is contemporary, which makes it accessible.’ The use of music throughout, from composer Paddy Cunneen, stitches the narrative together fluidly, Phillips explains. Set and Costume Designer Gabriela Tylesova will be responsible for realising the visual language of the play, with strong influence from Phillips. The two are long-time collaborators having worked together on Twelfth Night, Love Never Dies, Urinetown the Musical, Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical, L’elisir d’amore, The Pillowman, Cyrano De Bergerac, Tomfoolery, The Visit, Ladies in Black and Elixir of Love. Phillips admits he’s a ‘freak’ when it comes to controlling the overall vision of his work, which of course involves design, however Tylesova almost always brings an understanding of the work that Phillips doesn’t. He describes her skill as a ‘distinct distillation’ of a million ideas.

Both Phillips and Tylesova wanted the set design to pay tribute to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but in the same way the music and language play with accuracy, they wanted their set to have a sweep of romanticism that would not be found in the Globe. ‘In this case, it’s a royal blue curtain.’ That curtain wouldn’t have existed in Elizabethan theatre, Phillips says, however it represents the spiritual heart of the story and offers a skewed reality that helps the audience lean into the imagination of the story.

Phillips is currently in the throes of auditioning his final cast members. ‘I need a super-supply of character actors,’ he asserts. Finding his romantic leads – Will and Viola – requires classic, strong, stage actors who are playful enough to grasp the humour of the work, with an outstanding facility for verse. ‘They carry the show,’ he says matter-of-factly.

Presenting Shakespeare in Love soon after Twelfth Night feels delightfully appropriate for Phillips, as the two narratives bleed into each other. He can only hope MTC audiences love it half as much. ‘This will be a big, sprawling, love-filled, life-affirming romp of a play.’ There’s very little not to love he assures. ‘It is, far and away, my favourite romantic comedy. Which is probably unsurprising, given it combines the work of two of my favourite playwrights: Shakespeare and Stoppard.’

Just over two months out from rehearsals, a team of 17 wardrobe staff have already commenced work on creating the more than 80 costumes in the show. This sartorial army will balloon out to 30 in the coming weeks, comprising milliners, wig makers, shoemakers, buyers, art finishers, cutters, patternmakers, sewers, ruff makers and hand finishers. For Phillips, Tylesova and MTC’s production team, it’s a scale that excites and incites nerves of equal measure. But Phillips, as always, is certain it will be worth it. 

Published on 6 April 2019

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