Bard on the Beach’s exhilarating stage rendition of Shakespeare in Love is a life-affirming ode to theatre

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      By Lee Hall. Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Directed by Daryl Cloran. A Bard on the Beach Production. At the BMO Mainstage on Friday, June 21.  Continues until September 18

      Did my heart love Shakespeare in Love till now? Forswear it, sight!

      Bard on the Beach’s second play of the summer is an exhilarating tour de force. The cast is enchanting and the direction superb, making for a heartwarming, life-affirming ode to love and art.

      The festival’s sole non-Shakespeare-written offering this year is the stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1998 film. The story chronicles the (entirely fictional) journey of a young William Shakespeare who is inspired by the beautiful and wealthy Viola de Lesseps to write Romeo and Juliet. Viola disguises herself as a man to play the part of Romeo, and misunderstandings, class divisons, and artistic crises ensue as the two fall in love.

      The first highlight is Ghazal Azarbad as Viola. She’s charming, dynamic, and truly the heart of the play as she bubbles with joy for poetry and romance. Her chemistry with Charlie Gallant’s Will is beautiful and sweet, and she shines in passion and comedy alike.

      Ghazal Azarbad (Viola de Lesseps) and Charlie Gallant (William Shakespeare)
      Tim Matheson


      The second highlight is the costumes, designed by Cory Sicennes--who here enjoys, ironically, a rare chance to design actual Elizabethan-era clothing for Bard. The love and care that went into these garments is unmistakable. The intricate stitching and beading on the dresses, the period-accurate men’s breeches, and the striking colour compositions are all outstanding. Sicennes also nails it with the set design; the circular wooden stage feels like the great Globe Theatre itself--in other words, home.

      The ensemble is bright and colourful, with many supporting actors contributing excellent work. Kamyar Pazandeh is a fountain of charisma as Ned Alleyn, one of Will’s players; he simply exudes Mercutio, and electrifies the audience from the moment he steps onstage. Jennifer Lines, who delights as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew elsewhere at the fest, delights again as Queen Elizabeth. She’s sharp and commanding, and makes the most of her brief scenes.

      Together, they take the audience on a lively romp worthy of the celebrated Bard. The fight scenes are well-choreographed and exciting. There are some inspired moments in the staging, which flows fluidly from scene to scene, keeping everything fresh. The final scene, particularly, creates a wonderful bookend for the show; the way it leans into the play's meta-theatricality is lovely, and (dare I say it) much more satisfying than the 1998 film.

      Shakespeare in Love is a love letter to theatre, which will make you believe in the transcendence of Shakespeare’s poetry. This production is triumphant display of talent, which will make you believe in love.

      Andrew Cownden with Porkchop (as Spot).
      Tim Matheson