Shakespeare In Love transfers to the stage at Chichester Festival Theatre

Shakespeare in Love. Picture by Pete Le May
Shakespeare in Love. Picture by Pete Le May

So if we know the film Shakespeare in Love, does that mean that we know the stage version?

‘Well, yes and no,’ says Bill Ward who plays Wessex, essentially Shakepeare’s love rival, the role played by Colin Firth in the film.

Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the story has been adapted for the theatre by Lee Hall. Chichester is the show’s last venue on tour.

‘The plot is, of course, very similar to the film, but when you adapt a film, the thing about film is that there are an awful lot of characters in a film,’ Bill says. ‘When you bring it to the stage, you have to compress the number of characters. We have got 18 actors, and some of them wear many hats. But we have had to reduce it… and also the plot has been slightly compressed.’

But the essence remains the same.

Young Will Shakespeare has writer's block and the deadline for his new play – a comedy called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter – is fast approaching.

He's struggling to finish the first line of a sonnet and he's in dire need of inspiration. Then he meets the beguiling Viola de Lesseps, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant.

Viola is prepared to do anything – including risking the frosty disapproval of Queen Elizabeth I – to fulfil her illicit dream of performing on the London stage and pursuing a passionate affair with the greatest playwright of the age…

‘I am Wessex, Colin Firth in the film, but what is interesting about the stage version is that he is written as an out-and-out baddie. He is everything that Shakespeare is not. Shakespeare is kind and young and thoughtful and romantic and articulate and caring and sensitive, all those sorts of things. Lord Wessex is the absolutely opposite. He is motivated by money, greed and title and is not really interested in love at all. His interest in Viola is in the dowry he will get from her father for marrying her.

‘He is great fun to play. It is important that he is a big and important obstacle to provide Shakespeare with a big problem in winning Viola’s heart. Wessex is motivated by greed and also motivated by restoring his own reputation. We imagine that he was potentially seeking to woo the queen once, but the important thing is that he needs money and he needs it very badly to restore his reputation and to remain solvent.

‘We are loving doing the play. It is great, great fun to do.’

Bill is well known for soap opera roles including Charlie Stubbs in Coronation Street and James Barton in Emmerdale: ‘But actually I have done far more theatre than I have done TV jobs. It is just that a lot of the TV I have done has been quite high profile. But I started out in theatre and have always loved it. I got a job in a Salisbury play when the Coronation Street character came up, and so I couldn’t do it. But I have done a lot of theatre.

‘I have just done a tour of Legally Blonde. It was great. It was just such a positive show. It just always leaves the audience feeling better. It has got a massive great big heart to it, and actually that’s one of the things I love about Shakespeare in Love, that it also has got a massive big heart running right through it… and it is also very moving in places.’

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

Chichester Festival Theatre

November 20-24

cft.org.uk