“London Calling” by the Clash and David Bowie’s “Fame” introduce the episodes, as William Shakespeare struts around in skinny jeans. If the Bard’s plays can be re-set in modern times, why not add some contemporary touches to a new show that extravagantly embroiders the life of the world’s greatest playwright himself?
“Will,” premiering on TNT with a pair of swashbuckling episodes Monday, was created by Craig Pierce, who co-authored the screenplay for Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
“Will” almost makes that film feel old fashioned.
Newcomer Laurie Davidson plays the neophyte playwright in 1589, which is about the time that the real Shakespeare made his way from Stratford-Upon-Avon to London.
Will falls in with a ragtag theater company headed by James Burbage (Colm Meaney) who is desperate enough to give the young upstart a shot at writing a play in order to compete with the success of the most famous scribe of the time, Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower).
The play becomes “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” whose plot was borrowed from a Spanish work, but it’s what goes on offstage that consumes both our interest and Will’s.
For one thing, in spite of having a wife and children back in Stratford, Will finds himself increasingly attracted to Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), James’ winsome daughter. And if Will is headed for trouble in that direction, he’s also in danger because he is a Roman Catholic at a time when England has no tolerance for Papists.
Will considers himself a good Catholic, but his focus is on his career until his cousin Robert Southwell (Max Bennett), a radical Catholic bent on revolution, enlists him in the cause and asks him to gussy up a written plea to Queen Elizabeth I to officially acknowledge “the one true religion,” which, of course, her father rejected because it interfered with his marriage plans.
“Will” is filled with sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — there’s a good amount of nudity, a lot of action and violence, and Will gets dragged to a party by Marlowe where he inhales with the likes of Sir Francis Bacon and Elizabeth’s astrologer, John Dee.
All of this will play well with the pit, but the show’s genius is in how much its script actually honors Shakespeare himself. The dialogue ripples with sly and subtle references to plays and immortal lines our young country bumpkin will create in future years.
Davidson was plucked from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art just as he was about to play Tevye in a school production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Anatevka’s loss is Elizabethan London’s gain, because Davidson is magnetic. You watch this guy with near certainty that you’re watching a new star.
But his is only one of several extraordinary performances. DeJonge is every bit his equal, playing Alice as a 21st century woman who is determined to hold her own in the male-dominated world of Elizabethan theater.
Meaney, always a great character actor, is superb as James Burbage, grudgingly accepting that the upstart from Stratford may have a modicum of talent, and Mattias Inwood shines as his son, Richard, who would probably rather be a 16th century matinee idol than a great actor.
William Houston is perfectly over the top as Kemp, the theater’s most famous comic actor. Campbell Bower preens magnificently as the sexually voracious Marlowe, who feels both a bit of jealousy toward Will and perhaps admiration as well, tinged with lust.
On the bad-guy side, Ewen Bremner is a fearsome embodiment of evil as Topcliffe, the queen’s chosen enforcer of anti-Catholicism.
The show’s production values are exceptional. The production design by James Foster and John Myhre, and costumes by Caroline McCall and Kym Barrett are drenched with detail and authenticity.
As our young hero will come to write in the future, “Proceed, we will begin these rites, as we do trust they'll end in true delights.”
Yeah. What he said.
☆☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
- Back-to-back episodes at 8 p.m. Monday. Continues at 9 p.m. Mondays