In the US: Mondays, 9pm (ET/PT), TNT
In the UK: Not yet acquired
TNT’s Will is a drama told in a bold, contemporary style and played to a modern soundtrack that exposes all of Shakespeare’s recklessness, lustful temptations and tortured brilliance.
A sentence like that is almost designed to raise the hackles of any true Englishman. “It’s American. It’s going to be rubbish,” is the knee-jerk reaction that’s almost genetically programmed in us. Some of us might even instantly head to the iPlayer to watch BBC Two’s Ben Elton Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow, even if we’ve never watched it before, just to show solidarity.
And yet… I have to say I loved Will. I found it really exciting in the same way that The Knight’s Tale and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet were. Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising, since Will is written by and show-run by Baz Luhrmann’s long-time writing partner Craig Pearce, and directed by Elizabeth‘s Shekhar Kapur.
The show professes to depict what happened in the ‘lost years’ of Shakespeare’s life, before his eventual fame as a playwright in London. So we see the minor actor and glove maker Will Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) depart from his wife Anne Hathaway (Man Down‘s Deirdre Mullins) and kids in Stratford then head off to the big smoke to see if he can sell his new play.
Here, Will gets lucky as he comes across Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), who’s impressed enough by both him and his play to introduce him to her father, James (Colm Meaney). Burbage is looking for a new play, since Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower) is too busy working for ‘Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, and before you know it, Will’s first play is being staged.
As you can tell from that brief précis, Will occupies an almost quantum mechanical state of both strict historical accuracy and deliberate massive inaccuracy. Amusingly, in the style of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead but in reverse, everyone in Stratford, including Shakespeare, speaks Shakespearean English, but as soon as he hits London, he finds everyone else speaks in modern dialogue. Indeed, this is a London that is both Elizabethan and modern, the extras dressed like Early Modern English punk rock fans, the soundtrack playing punk hits of the 70s that actors on the stage even dance to.
The series has a punk-infused look and soundtrack (the Clash’s “London Calling” makes an appearance), which comes from Pearce’s belief that “theater then was like punk rock. You had 3,000 people, crammed into these open-aired, circular theaters, and people were screaming, drinking, and fighting.”
Yet the series is also clearly written by people who have done their research. London’s unmistakably a late 16th/17th town, dealing with late 16th/167th century issues. There are beggars, bears and brothels. There are no actresses, only actors in dresses, acting in a theatre that looks like The Globe. The queen’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (Anton Lesser) is trying to ferret out Catholics with the help of Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner), and while the play’s very definitely the thing for Will, there’s action and adventure to be had from the show’s support of the theory that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic who was liable to be tortured to death if anyone ever found out his true religion. And that first play? Edward III
Yet despite Will‘s willingness to endorse theories that aren’t 100% supported by the evidence, creditably and despite Anonymous‘s Campbell Bower presence in the cast, it’s clear that this is a show that 100% supports the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were his own. Indeed, while Anonymous and others argue that only someone with a good, aristocratic education could have written his plays, Will‘s punk aesthetic flips the idea on its head, arguing that only someone of a lower class had the earthiness and drive to write the plays and invent words like ‘bedazzle’ to suit their meters, while educated aristocrats would have been content to keep putting on the works inspired by the classics and stick to the grammar. It even gives us a glorious moment when Will is shown (temporarily) to have written one of Marlow’s plays, rather than vice versa.
The show is unable to avoid Shakespeare in Love territory, however, by showing how his ideas were inspired by real-life. DeJonge cross-dresses so she is free to travel around town unhindered, for example, planting a seed for future fun firmly in Will’s mind and her brother Richard (Mattias Inwood) is a very Falstaffian compatriot, too. Lines from the plays pepper the dialogue, as well, with Will seeing his ‘destiny written in the stars’.
But Pearce is still a talented enough writer that he doesn’t rely on Shakespeare to produce all the good dialogue and is even able to have Shakespeare duel in verse with Robert Greene in a tavern. Lines like “It seems women are only fit for ruling the country, raising children or whoring. I haven’t decided which path to follow yet”, “Thy wit is so stale worms would not eat it” and “Live hard, die young of the pox” make this more than a simple plundering of the classics.
Will‘s a genuinely exciting piece of work with good writing, a good cast and a unique visual style that manages to make Shakespeare and 16th century theatre seem young and daring. Watch it if you can.