Robyn Scott plays Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS
Robyn Scott plays Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS

Greg Karvellas didn’t hesitate when Fugard Theatre founding producer Eric Abraham and executive director Daniel Galloway asked if he was interested in directing the SA premiere of Shakespeare in Love, featuring 21 actors and a dog.

Karvellas says he had loved the movie (which won seven Academy Awards in 1999, the same year that Saving Private Ryan won five and Elizabeth won one), partly because it meant time out of the high-school day (he was at school at the time) and partly because it was "really fun".

He can’t say the same for Shakespeare, however. Despite being "always in theatre", graduating from the National School of the Arts and the University of Cape Town before moving into stage management, Karvellas has never developed a passion for the Bard’s works.

"Shakespeare has always eluded me," he says. Until he started preparing for the Cape Town run of Shakespeare in Love, that is.

"It’s opened up a world I’d decided maybe wasn’t for me. For the first time in my career I feel that I’d really like to take a crack at Shakespeare."

Taking the lead: Roxane Hayward and Dylan Edy in Shakespeare in Love. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS
Taking the lead: Roxane Hayward and Dylan Edy in Shakespeare in Love. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS

The play is about young Will Shakespeare, who has writer’s block and desperately needs some inspiration to meet a looming deadline. He finds it in Viola de Lesseps, an admirer who disguises herself as a man to get a part in his play (women weren’t allowed on stage in those days).

Karvellas, whose directing credits include Clybourne Park and Bad Jews, says the show works on many levels. "You can approach it as a romantic comedy, a fun story with modern language (except for the Shakespeare bits) or as an invitation to this imagined world.

"That’s what the show does. It plays with the icon that is Shakespeare. That’s what’s been so great for me — it’s been a doorway to something I thought I may never want to do."

The production is a play with music, rather than a musical, written by Lee Hall and adapted from the screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. The West End production had an extended sold-out season at the Noël Coward Theatre in London in 2014.

"It’s such a hilarious show. There are so many wonderful characters, so many clever bits of writing, Shakespearean in-jokes, theatre in-jokes…. It brings the whole Shakespeare thing down to earth, makes it accessible," says Karvellas.

He describes it as a period piece because it’s set in the Elizabethan era, but says it’s ultimately a piece of fan fiction based on the universe of Shakespeare and the history that we know. "The characters — Will Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Burbage, Philip Henslowe — were actual people then, but how they’re presented is, I guess, a bit like me and my friends who are fellow theatre makers. Everyone’s hustling, trying to get their hands on the next big script, trying to cast the best actors, doing deals…. You get a real sense that these were just guys making plays."

In this production Dylan Edy (New Boy, Hamlet, Origins) is Shakespeare and Roxane Hayward (Blood Drive, Saints & Strangers) is Viola de Lesseps. Cape Talk’s John Maytham returns to the stage as Fennyman.

In an interview with the leads on his radio show, Maytham talked about just how much fun the play is to perform, and how much fun it is to watch. Even after seven weeks’ immersion in the production, and with three preview nights sold out at the time of the interview, Maytham said he remains glued to the video monitor whenever he’s in the changing area because "what’s happening on stage is so magical".

The sword fights are as realistic as they can get, requiring formal fight choreography by Jon Keevy. It’s fast and it’s dangerous. The actors have a fight call before every show, rehearsing each move.

"It’s got to be comical but at the same time when you get into the meat of that Shakespeare — some of the most romantic, dramatic scenes ever written — you’ve got to play them 100% for real," said Maytham, who credits Edy and Hayward for doing just that in their final scene from Romeo and Juliet.

Karvellas is a huge fan of Maytham’s radio show, and it was when he heard him doing "Monty Python bits" around the time of receiving the Shakespeare in Love script that he decided to contact him.

Rather than inviting actors to audition, Karvellas hopes that the ones he thinks will be right for the part will turn up, but Maytham was the exception. "John has such a wonderful voice, a great look, and I’d heard he was fabulous to work with," he says.

Canine cast member

The two met, ran through some scenes, and decided to give it a go.

The dog Bogart makes his stage debut as Spot. A young rescue with an amazing character, he is stealing the hearts of cast and audience alike. "It’s been nerve-racking because I’ve never worked with a dog before," says Karvellas. "It’s volatile…. You never know if it’s going to work or not, but it’s been a really wonderful experience."

Bogart is a mixed breed, estimated to be about 18 months old. He was picked up as a stray by a rescue organisation before being adopted by Mark and Jill Stephens in January. He is trained for film and theatre by Jill Stephens, who works with licensed animal wranglers Animal Tails. She accompanies Bogart to set and has to be sure to be at the right exit to receive him every time he comes off stage.

Team work: Shakespeare in Love features a cast of 21 — and a dog. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS
Team work: Shakespeare in Love features a cast of 21 — and a dog. Picture: DANIEL RUTLAND MANNERS

As for the cast, most have been given strict instructions to ignore Bogart — not to pat him and definitely not to feed him — except for Andrew Roux (Wit, Macbeth), who plays Nol and happens to be in Bogart’s scenes. "He and Bogart are like a double act; Andrew even takes Bogart’s notes because he only arrives later. Andrew’s been such a champ," says Karvellas.

The wooden set is designed by Paul Wills to look like a deconstructed playhouse of the time, with loads of doors that allow characters to make their entrances and exits in an unpredictable fashion.

The set was built by a master carpenter and an engineer (the balcony is held up by steel beams), with very few changes required after Wills presented his initial concept. "It just became about figuring it out, and then I plotted the whole play with a story board before we started rehearsals, just as a departure point…. It’s such a practical set. It lives. It breathes," says Karvellas.

Costume design is by Birrie le Roux, lighting design by Wolf Britz, sound design by David Classen with resident musical director Charl Johan Lingenfelder, and choreography by Kristin Wilson.

* Shakespeare in Love, Fugard Theatre, Cape Town, until November 25

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