But how to communicate that visceral sense of sweat and 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 modernize them.
You can stay highly faithful to period and language, as in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptations, say, or old-school BBC made-for-TV movies. You can depart pretty radically from both, as in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” or “Scotland, Pa.” or even the spirited “10 Things I Hate About You,” which repurposed “The Taming of the Shrew” as a tart high school romance between Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles. Mr. Pearce’s screenplay for 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet” (directed by and co-written with Mr. Luhrmann) and Joss Whedon’s recent “Much Ado About Nothing” kept the lines Elizabethan while updating the setting, while the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is currently embarked on an opposite project, keeping the plays in period, but updating the language.
That’s 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. Mr. 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 captures 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 comes to London, determined to pursue his writerly dreams and enmesh himself in the occasional Catholic conspiracy and extramarital clinch.
Will’s first sight of London, scored to the mod revival strains of the Jam’s “That’s Entertainment” is a riot of color and dirt and some pretty outré eye makeup. Maybe Nicholas Hilliard’s portraits don’t show spiked cuffs or Manic Panic hairdos, but you’ll find them here, topping some very tight jerkins.
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 theater where the groundlings stand? It’s been imagined as a mosh pit.
Shekhar Kapur (“Elizabeth”), 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,” Mr. Pearce knows that Shakespearean verse can sound just plenty 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’s comically deflating contemporary language, too, as when Jamie Campbell Bower’s Marlowe snarls, “I’m still in the research phase.”
Well, Mr. 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 — there’s even a scene in which Will and Marlowe enjoy a brief snog — 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 Jean E. Howard, the George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. “It’s blank.”
Even with so much license, “Will” wasn’t 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. 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.
Since Mr. Davidson didn’t have much in the way of biographical information, to create the character of Will he turned to Shakespeare’s work, especially the sonnets, concentrating on “great empathy and understanding of the human psyche.”
Does that make him a rock god? The central conceit of “Will,” that players and playwrights were the superstars of their day, isn’t quite true. The theater was a disreputable place and in the 1580s and 1590s, when Shakespeare first made his mark, audiences were loyal to companies and actors, not to low-status writers. Most scripts circulated without a playwright’s name attached.
But “Will” suggests that maybe Elizabethan theaters weren’t all that different from rock clubs. A little dirty, a little dangerous, they were places of prostitution and ale and Morris dancing — the Elizabethan version of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. If the crowd didn’t like a show, they “would cry out for a play that was a popular favorite and try to get the actors to change their repertory in the middle of a performance,” Ms. Howard said.
That doesn’t happen much these days, though just a few weeks ago, protesters disrupted performances of the Public Theater’s Trump-inflected “Julius Caesar.” (Undaunted, “Will” sponsored an Elizabethan marketplace outside the theater on the final week of the show, featuring oh-so Elizabethan tote bags and contemporary tattoos.) But political flash points aside, do Shakespeare’s plays still deliver a visceral, beer-sloshing charge?
Mr. Pearce, who has been in love with Shakespeare’s words ever since as a kid he helped his mother, an amateur actress, learn her “Romeo and Juliet” lines, thinks so. He trusts that borrowing a punk-rock vocabulary will help “Will” convey a little of the surprise and force and wonder that audiences felt when they first heard Shakespeare’s words and maybe think about what kind of a man would have written them.
(And yes, Mr. Pearce said he firmly believes that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. Any contrary theory “is just bonkers,” he said.)
When his plays are done well, Mr. Pearce said, “they’re funny, they’re moving, they’re romantic, they’re sexy, they’re, exciting.” Who wouldn’t want television like that?
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