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“Shakespeare in Love” Would you rather see the movie or the play?


Members of the Stratford Festival company in Shakespeare in Love

Attending a theatrical performance provides an experience that is undeniably unique, and unlike any other an audience member can experience. Undoubtedly, filmic productions have merits of their own, but require a much greater suspension of disbelief for audience members – sitting in the dark, focused entirely on a series of moving images flashing before their eyes.

Consider “Shakespeare in Love,” the winner of the 1998 Academy Award for Best Picture, which now has a stage adaptation making its North American premiere at the Stratford Festival this summer. The story of “Shakespeare in Love” distils the relationship between cinema and theatre audiences perfectly, and almost by accident.

The play-within-a-film trope used in the 1998 film allows for a direct comparison between the respective audiences – those watching the film, and those within the film watching Shakespeare’s newest play.

The film’s audience experiences “Shakespeare in Love” from an external position, removed from the story, and witnesses the relationship between the actors and the Elizabethan audience.

The audience of the stage production has the unique experience of serving as both audiences – witnessing the struggles of the financiers, playhouse managers, writers, and actors, but also serving as the audience to Shakespeare’s newest production, the play-within-a-play.


Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare with members of the company

In this way, the theatre allows for a more tangible human connection. There is a sense that one is not simply an individual enjoying the show, but part of the audience, and somehow part of a larger organism with its own role. The undeniable connection that forms between the audience and the actors on stage is definitely not a one-way relationship. Actor and audience inform each other.

This relationship is tangible and physical. The audience can feel the movement of the actors, hear breathe, see the sweat. The actors, in turn, can immediately sense and gauge the reactions of the audience – a gasp, a laugh, or a murmur.

It is indeed an incredibly intimate experience, both personal and physical, and it is this physicality that is highlighted in a theatrical performance. Whether you are an actor or an audience member, you possess a unique physical perception of what is happening around you.

Shakespeare in Love at the Theatre Allows for an Intrinsically Active Experience

Viewing a film such as “Shakespeare in Love” is, in reality, an inherently passive experience. Where a film presents a story to the audience fait accompli, the theatre allows for an intrinsically active experience. The audience is not merely a passive witness to events passing before them, but are a vital part of the theatrical atmosphere.

There is indeed a sense that the actors on stage are not merely portraying characters, but they are in fact playing the audience.


Luke Humphrey and Stephen Ouimette

There is a discernible exchange of energy between the watchers and the watched.

All of the finest pieces of theatre that I have had the privilege to experience have included such a playing of the audience. Theatrical productions allow for the direct and repeated breaking of the ‘Fourth Wall’ – a specific moment where one of the actors will engage directly with the audience; let them in on a secret, share a joke, issue a complaint, or drop a reference with a wink and a smile.

There is no other visual format – be it film or television – in which this kind of relationship can be forged. It is for this reason that everyone deserves the experience of live theatre. The sheer range of experiences available through such a medium is staggering. A film is always the same during any repeated viewing, but a live play is always different – every performance is different than the ones that precede and follow it. Almost anything could happen on any given night.

“The Hypochondriac,” is Just as Relevant Today

The theatre is a place in which the audience participates emotionally. The audience can be entertained by the comedy and characters of plays such as Molière’s “The Hypochondriac,” a satirical exploration of medical advice and the dangers of self-diagnosis. In an era of seemingly endless health advice available from celebrities and online sources, “The Hypochondriac,” is just as relevant today as it was when it was first performed in the 17th century.

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Through more serious pieces of theatre, such as Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” the audience can be challenged, and made to confront the dark reflection of our own fears, anxieties, and desires. It raises questions regarding fate and control, which are just as easily applicable to our world as they were to that of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Other theatrical productions, like Oliver Kemeid’s contemporary retelling of Virgil’s “The Aeneid,” force the audience to question the nature of humanity, and the struggle to recover from devastating loss. Especially relevant in our modern times, the plight of refugees causes the audience to consider perspectives previously unthought-of.

One of the things that I love most about live theatre is that in addition to telling stories – be they comedies, tragedies, or dramas – what it truly does for us is help us understand ourselves and it tells us more about ourselves as individuals and a society than it does the historical or fictitious personages and events.

I cannot deny that watching a great filmic production such as “Shakespeare in Love” is a wonderful experience. However, for a true, visceral experience, I cannot recommend a night at the theatre more highly. So go ahead, take a break from your screens, and investigate the offerings at this years Stratford Festival. Personally, I can’t wait to experience and participate in “Shakespeare in Love” in person – and prepared to play both my 16th and 21st century roles.

Photography by David Hou.

By Robert H. Porter


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“Shakespeare in Love” Would you rather see the movie or the play?

Keith Tomasek
18 July 2016
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