‘Shakespeare in Love’: the company, with Tom Bateman as Will. Photo: Johan Persson

No Holds Bard

18th July 2014

Clare Finney meets the hero of the stage version of Shakespeare in Love, which is currently previewing at the Noel Coward Theatre in London’s West End and promises to be one of the theatrical events of the summer – and beyond.

Tom Bateman is in trouble. Summoned to Spain to shoot a short film for friends, he had but two instructions from the Shakespeare in Love production team. The first – not to get a tan – was doomed to fail. “I go brown within minutes,” he grins out of a face that is more Spanish Armada than Elizabethan English – but by day three of filming, his second promise had also foundered. “I’d said I wouldn’t shave, but my friends wanted me to trim my beard for continuity,” he explains. “They thought I could do it myself.” When he returned, seconds later, with a bare strip of skin running through his bristles like a footpath, they had no option but to shave the whole thing off and start again.

“Now I’m back, tanned and shaved, and everyone here will be furious,” he worries. “It’s the photoshoot later.” Though all the preparation has now come to fruition and preview performances have begun, when we meet – in May – his forthcoming role as Will Shakespeare is on the backburner of his acting brain. “At the moment I’m just reading up on him. We got the final draft of the script through recently, and it’s brilliant: beautiful, funny, heartbreaking… I’m terrified,” he confesses – and, for the first time since meeting him, his dazzling smile slightly fades.

In Shakespeare in Love, the West End adaptation of the beloved film of that name, Tom Bateman takes his first lead stage role since leaving LAMDA, as the bard: England’s national poet; the playwright whose plays are performed more than those of any other in history all over the world. Were that not daunting enough, he is also the successor of Joseph Fiennes, whose on-screen Shakespeare won him awards, critical acclaim, and the hearts of every girl in school at the time. “The first time I went home after getting the part, my mum suggested we watch it,” Tom recalls. “I said ‘yes, go on then’ – and as we watched, slowly thought to myself, ‘Oh God. He is really, really good’.”

In one scene, settling down to write, Fiennes picks up his quill, rubs it vigorously between his hands then spits over his shoulder for luck before scribbling lines furiously. It’s a stroke of acting genius which haunts Tom, even today. “How do you even begin to make that role your own? How do you beat that?” he cries. His answer – “to get into the mindset of what it would be to write every day for a living” – came from Declan Donnellan, the director, so, not one to do things lightly, Tom decided to “go all the way.”

‘Shakespeare would have used quill and ink,’ he thought, ‘so I’ll do that.’ Then he couldn’t find a quill. ‘He would probably made his quills himself,’ he decided, and set off to find feathers.’ He knew he was becoming obsessive when, driving back home to Oxford after a read-through, he caught himself looking for road kill. “I drove past a pheasant and thought, ‘that would work. Could I pluck it?’” he chuckles. “I made do with magpie feathers, in the end. They are surprisingly sturdy and strong.”

His parents came home later that evening to find a pan of feathers on the stove – “you have to boil them first” – and Tom sharpening his quill by candlelight. It was, he laughingly confesses, “one of the wackiest things I’ve done.” It worked, though. Tom may have written no more than two sides of A4 that evening, but it certainly gave him an insight into Shakespeare’s daily grind. “It took me ages, I was knackered, and I needed a new quill, and I’d only penned a page.”

At one moment in the play, Shakespeare – or Will, as he’s always called – walks in brandishing sheets of tightly written script. ‘Gentleman, I have your pages,’ he declares – and he’s written out two scenes for a company of a dozen people. “It boggles the mind.” Tom sighs, “but I do think this play is brilliant at helping you understand what being Shakespeare, in that time before he’s famous, would have been like.”

It brings out the person behind the playwright: the ‘Will’ component of a moniker so huge it feels less like a name than a legend. It certainly doesn’t sound like newbie from Stratford making ends meet. The play opens with Will suffering – authors everywhere take heart– from writers block. “He’s sat there, trying to pen Shall I Compare Thee – and it’s crap. He tries all sorts – autumn morning, noon in spring time – none of which makes sense,” Tom smiles. “In the meantime, he is being chased for more scenes of this play he’s writing and has no inspiration for.”

The play is about pirates: Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, it’s called, which sounds far from Shakespearian. He has no script, but a cast of actors – one of whom really is a girl. He falls in love. Fast forward several scenes, and we have Will, standing beneath a balcony looking up at his darling – yet far from reciting poetry, he’s speechless. When he does finally stutter something, it’s because Christopher Marlow, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright and alleged nemesis, is standing in the wings feeding him lines.

In part it’s a tongue-in-cheek allusion to base rumours that Marlow penned some of Shakespeare’s work. In part it is playfully self-referential: Will with stage fright, Marlow acting as prompt. For Tom, it was eye-opening. “Here we have Romeo and Juliet, one of the most famous plays ever, with its ingenious device of the balcony dividing lovers – and we’re told he came up with it because he’s been placed in that same situation,” Tom explains. “It’s not genius after all. He was just writing about his life.”

It was here that Tom’s starting point for defining his version of Will presented itself: Shakespeare, not as he’s seen by posterity, but as he was then. “He’s a young guy, living hand to mouth in London, trying to make it in the theatre industry. When I thought about it, we weren’t that dissimilar,” he says musingly. “I’m 25, I’m from outside London, and I’ve come to London where all these opportunities are: where you get a bit of a breakthrough and all the while are thinking: ‘I shouldn’t be here. Someone has made a mistake’.”

The feeling is typical of this age, we agree (I myself being 25, too). It might look like you are managing – “getting away with it”, as Tom calls it – but like a duck swimming, your feet are going hell for leather beneath. Perhaps Shakespeare felt like this. Certainly Tom does, having been cast in a role that would normally, judging by West End trends of late, be accorded to a celebrity.

“The audition process was nightmare. I think they auditioned me five or six times, and the last was three or four hours long,” he recalls, “but the problem in the West End at the moment is that, to survive, you have to charge a lot of money and trust you are going to sell out. Hence the ‘Come and see so-and-so in such-and-such’ posters.” The amazing thing about Shakespeare in Love, he continues, is that the producers “have trusted the fact that, because people love the film so much, they’ll see the play.”

Essentially the whole casting process has given two fingers to those who thought it would be a celeb fest. “It’s a cast full of seasoned pros, of course – Paul Chahidi, Tony Bell, Ian Bartholomew, Lucy Briggs-Owen – but essentially they have cast who they want,” he says. They’ve taken punts on some parts – intelligent punts, but still punts – just as Jodie Rourke did on Tom for his first West End role. “It was Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant. I had to leave LAMDA early to do it,” he confesses, “but I will love her for ever for giving me that opportunity. She just said that she wanted me. She didn’t care I was still in school.”

Working alongside Tennant was a dream come true, of course – but it was also a steep learning curve. “I watched him and Jonathan Coe improvising during rehearsals and thought, ‘how the hell can I possibly keep up?’ He can do anything. I remember just watching him in the wings while he played being hungover: rolling his head, putting his aspirin in a coke can, taking his sweet-ass time in front of 1500 people. He was cool as a cucumber. It taught me that you need to allow your character to just be.”

‘Just go with it’ is the lesson that Tom has been learning: not only from David Tennant, but also from his own previous screen role in Da Vinci’s Demons (“another historical genius we know little about”) and from reading up on Shakespeare. “It still boggles the mind how he manages to come up with certain phrases but, as I remember one of his biographers, Peter Ackroyd, saying, he wouldn't have known how good he was. It would just flop out of his head.”

Tom sighs, resignedly. “You cannot understand genius – but you can understand London, and that is a key part of it.” ‘Without London there would be no Shakespeare’ claimed Ackroyd – and, as a country-turned-town mouse himself, Tom already had a fairly good grasp of how Shakespeare, coming here for the first time, must have felt.

At some point this year, Tom wants to recreate Will’s journey from Stratford-upon-Avon to London, on foot. “Imagine coming here from the countryside, having never left Warwickshire before,” he says. London in the 16th century was a maelstrom of trade and culture – probably not far removed from today’s big smoke. It would have been overwhelming. “There were people everywhere,” Tom says. “Yet Shakespeare had such an incredible mind, he could sympathise with all of them. He didn’t cut himself off.”

Can not a Jew bleed? Do woman not have affections, and desire for sports, and frailty as men? Back then these were questions only Shakespeare would have ventured to ask, soaking up everything he saw as inspiration. When Tom was doing Da Vinci’s Demons, he spoke to Tom Riley, the actor playing Leonardo da Vinci, about becoming a historical figure of such enormous renown. “When you play these geniuses, it’s so easy to think ‘who the hell am I, to play this man?’,” Bateman recalls him as saying – but Riley had a solution too: change the approach. “Normally you’d start from the script, but with people like Shakespeare you need think about the life he would have led and immerse yourself inside his world.”

Doug Rao (Ned Alleyn) and Tom Bateman (Will Shakespeare) in rehearsal • Photo: Johan Persson

This isn’t easy. Very little is known about Shakespeare for certain, and it’s counter-intuitive for an actor to start outside the script. Even with the Da Vinci’s Demons experience and his world-class training at LAMDA, Tom might have struggled to reinvent Shakespeare the Bard as Will the Average Man – and this is where Declan Donnelan comes in. Director of Shakespeare in Love and of scores of renowned productions, his hugely influential acting manual, The Actor and The Target, was the first Tom read at drama school. “To be in the same room as him now is amazing,” Tom sighs. “He has these eyes, and he looks at you and points out the simplest things about why people behave how they do. It explodes the scene.”

He offers me an example. “Lucy [Lucy Briggs-Owen, who plays Viola de Lesseps] and I were rehearsing a love scene the other day… a scene where we meet each other – I’m chatting her up, basically. We read it out and Declan just stopped me and said, ‘You’re assuming she’s going to say yes. There’s nothing at stake here. When you chat a girl up, the reason you’re nervous is because you think they might not fancy you… She might say no.’ That’s all he said to me, but it made everything fit.”

For Tom it was revelatory. Forget nuances, symbolism, genius and Shakespeare’s oeuvre: this was Will, chatting a girl up on a Friday night. “The fear they might not say yes. That’s what makes your heart start beating and makes it seem real.” It’s this experience that Tom is bringing to the boards of the Noel Coward Theatre. Not Shakespeare as playwright or actor or poet, but at his most universal: Shakespeare in Love.

See www.shakespeareinlove.com for more information and to book

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