Shakespeare nerd that I am, I was intrigued by the idea of the new TNT show, Will, when I saw the first commercials for it a few weeks ago. My interest grew after I listened to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast, Shakespeare Unlimited’s most recent episode, “Creating TNT’s ‘Will‘“, which features an interview with Will showrunners Craig Pearce and Shekhar Kapur. The interview delves into, among other things, the inspiration for their very colorful version of Elizabethan London– the streets of Mumbai and London’s disco and punk eras.
I’m glad I listened to the interview before watching the pilot. Because I was armed with the knowledge that punk rock was an inspiration for their version of London in 1589 and that twenty-something Shakespeare left Stratford-on-Avon to essentially become a rock star, the show’s stylization didn’t throw me off like it might have. The atmosphere feels like a Baz Lurhman production, not surprisingly because Pearce worked on Moulin Rouge while Kapur grew up with Bollywood films. He says that people have called his work “Bollywood-like” to insult it, but that doesn’t seem to have phased him at all. Personally, I like Kapur’s two movies about Elizabeth I (Elizabeth, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age). The make-up and costuming of Will feel garish and blatantly historically inaccurate at first, but after about ten minutes I got over that and enjoyed the show.
Laurie Davidson plays Will, a charismatic and gifted young writer who suffers from being middle class and from nowhere in particular. His first day in London is disastrous, as a pickpocket steals his money and a letter meant for a Catholic dissident that Queen Elizabeth’s spies are looking for. He is nearly rejected by the theater company he’s come all this way to join, and it’s only because James Burbage (played by Colm Meaney), the theater’s manager, is so desperate for a play he’s willing to take whatever he can get- in this case, an unknown upstart named Will Shakespeare. With twenty-four hours to write a play successful enough to keep the company’s patrons interested, Will has his work cut out for him, but still finds the time to engage in Elizabethan rap battles and drunkenly evade the city’s night watch after a night on the town with new friends.
Among the historical figures you’ll come across is one who is made up entirely, James Burbage’s fictional daughter, Alice- “that most useless creature, an educated woman”. She has a quick with to go along with her beautiful face and isn’t above mocking her brother Richard (played by Mattias Inwood), who is one of the company’s star actors. In the interview Pearce and Kapur state that Alice is an amalgamation of the amazing women you’ll find in Shakespeare’s plays. Sparks have already flown between Will and Alice in the pilot, and things will undoubtedly continue to heat up between them despite Will’s marriage to Anne Hathaway.
Jamie Campbell Bowers co-stars as the playwright Christopher Marlow, Shakespeare’s sometimes-rival who is also a spy for Queen Elizabeth and searches for Catholic dissidents while most assuredly not writing plays. While he struggles with his own writing, he’s able to recognize it in others, including a glove-maker’s son from Stratford, who he keeps calling ‘William Shakeshaft’. While I associate Jamie Campbell Bower with his somewhat naive Antony from Sweeney Todd, his laconic Marlowe practically drips with genius and danger, making himself into Will’s perilous ally.
These days, Shakespeare’s works are often spouted from ivory towers by snobby professors with their noses in the air. But Pearce and Kapur point out that, to keep the theater open, and full, Shakespeare had to write for the masses. While the language he employed is thought of as old-fashioned and academic these days, in the Elizabethan era, that was how people spoke. Shakespeare wrote for the masses, unwashed and unlettered though they might be, and so his plays have ribald jokes, clown figures, and talk of sex all throughout them. By infusing Will with a punk rock and rap vibe, Pearce and Kapur seek to show younger generations that Shakespeare’s plays are sexy, cool and, above all, meant for the average person.
The first two episodes, ‘The Play’s the Thing’ and ‘Cowards Die Many Times’ both aired last Monday, July 10th. I’ve only seen the first one, but if the rest of the season is as fun and engaging as the pilot, I’ll be watching all ten episodes and beyond.