Shakespeare in punk-rock mode in TV series

Laurie Davidson plays the lead in Will, a boisterous, steampunk-style period drama that imagines William Shakespeare's early years in London.
Laurie Davidson plays the lead in Will, a boisterous, steampunk-style period drama that imagines William Shakespeare's early years in London.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some get a series order 400 years post-mortem.

Next Monday, TNT will debut the first two episodes of Will, a boisterous, steampunk-style period drama that imagines William Shakespeare's early years in London.

Shakespeare remains a cultural touchstone and an academic trove. The tales he adapted and invented can still astonish, delight and provoke. But can his own story - 20something kid from a sleepy, sheepy market town breaks into the Elizabethan theatre scene - inspire a hit show?

Well, it has been tried in film - from a 1914 silent movie to Shakespeare In Love (1998) to the authorship conspiracy thriller Anonymous (2011) - and on television too, chiefly in Will Shakespeare, the 1978 English series that starred Tim Curry as Will and Ian McShane as his rival Christopher Marlowe.

Yet it has never been attempted with so many tattoos, piercings and stage dives while London Calling pulses on the soundtrack.

Craig Pearce, Baz Luhrmann's long-time writing partner and the creator of Will, explains the punk- rock mode as an analogy for theatre in Shakespeare's day.

"It wasn't this polite thing," he said. "It was 3,000 people crammed into these wooden structures. They were fighting and they were drinking and they were eating."

If they liked a play, they cheered. If they hated it, they revolted.

But how to communicate that visceral sense of sweat, thrum and poetry via the cool medium of television? Any new take on Shakespeare's life and work, in whatever medium, has to decide whether to hang on to the original story and language or whether to modernise them.

You can stay highly faithful to period and language, as in British director Kenneth Branagh's film adaptations, for example, or old- school BBC made-for-TV movies.

You can depart pretty radically from both, as in Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985) or even the spirited 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which repurposed The Taming Of The Shrew as a tart high-school romance between Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles.

Pearce's screenplay for 1996's Romeo + Juliet (directed by and co-written with Luhrmann) and Joss Whedon's recent Much Ado About Nothing kept the lines Elizabethan while updating the setting, while the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has embarked on an opposite project, keeping the plays in period, but updating the language.

That is also the approach of Still Star-Crossed, the Romeo And Juliet sequel, from the Shonda Rhimes TV factory, now airing on ABC and struggling to attract viewers.

Will, both reverently faithful and cheekily disloyal, splits the difference.

Pearce clearly loves the language and, in true Shakespeare style, he has appropriated plenty of it.

But he and his collaborators have chosen a visual style, a vernacular and a soundtrack (heavy on electric guitar, light on hautboy) that capture the gritty, flamboyant swirl of 16th-century London on the wrong side of the river.

In the pilot episode, young Will complains: "I can't spend the rest of my life making gloves." So he leaves Stratford-upon-Avon, to say nothing of his wife and three children, and goes to London, determined to pursue his writerly dreams and enmesh himself in the occasional Catholic conspiracy and extramarital clinch.

His first sight of London, scored to the mod revival strains of The Jam's That's Entertainment is a riot of colour, dirt and some pretty outre eye make-up.

Laurie Davidson, who landed the role of Will while finishing his studies at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, recalled his confusion at an early costume fitting. "I was certainly surprised when I got given my pair of skinny jeans. I was like, 'Where's my ruff?'"

The section of the theatre where the groundlings stand? It has been imagined as a mosh pit.

Indian film-maker Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, 1998), who directed the pilot and several other episodes, developed a restless, roving shooting style meant to rescue Shakespeare from snob cults and snoozy English classes and put him back into the city crowd.

"The way the camera moves, you're part of the play, you're part of the audience," he said.

Will takes a similarly unconventional approach to language. As in Romeo + Juliet, Pearce knows that Shakespearean verse can sound sexy or violent or grand, as when he transforms a slanging match between Shakespeare and the real-life Elizabethan snoot Robert Greene into an iambic pentameter rap battle.

There is comically deflating contemporary language too, as when Jamie Campbell Bower's Marlowe snarls: "I'm still in the research phase."

Well, Pearce did a lot of research too, at least as much as the historical record allowed. He can pad out Shakespeare's story with intrigue and romance because so little evidence of Shakespeare's early years in London remains.

"We don't know very much about Shakespeare's life in London at all," said Professor Jean Howard, the George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. "It's blank."

Even with so much licence, Will was not an easy sell. HBO bought the idea early on, but ultimately passed when Game Of Thrones became a hit. The show went to the Pivot network, which shuttered last year, before landing at TNT.

Ms Sarah Aubrey, TNT's executive vice-president of original programming, read the pilot script and immediately embraced the conceit. "The classic story of a young man coming to a big city with nothing but his talent and moxie," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2017, with the headline 'Shakespeare in punk-rock mode in TV series'. Print Edition | Subscribe