Theatre reviews: Shakespeare in Love | Oscar Slater: The Trial that Shamed a City

Imogen Daines and Piero Niel-Mee in Shakespeare in Love
Imogen Daines and Piero Niel-Mee in Shakespeare in Love
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WHERE to begin, in listing the many excellent qualities of the Theatre Royal Bath’s stage version of Shakespeare In Love, currently on a brief visit to Edinburgh?

Shakespeare in Love, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***

Kevin Lennon as innocent immigrant Oscar Slater

Kevin Lennon as innocent immigrant Oscar Slater

Oscar Slater: The Trial That Shamed a City, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

As a shameless spin-off 
from the 1998 film starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, it boasts one of the wittiest scripts in recent Hollywood history, co-written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.

If you are a Shakespeare buff, you will often find yourself lost in admiration for the smartness with which it deploys tropes and scenes from Shakespeare’s best-loved plays, and crafts them into its romantic tale of how a youngish Shakespeare – aged 33, unhappily married, and suffering from writer’s block – finds himself mightily inspired when he falls passionately in love with the young, rebellious Lady Viola de Lesseps, who has dressed up as a boy in order to become an actor.

And if you are not so bothered about Shakespeare, and simply enjoy a beautifully-turned-out piece of costume drama, you will also find much to enjoy in Phillip Breen’s good-humoured and well-paced production, all played out on a spare but effective revolving set by Max Jones that reflects the two-storey structure of an Elizabethan stage.

Paddy Cunneen’s excellent music, played live by members of the company, is wittily used; the costumes are gorgeous, and the 18-strong acting company deliver a string of fine performances in the approved heritage style, with Pierro Niel-Mee delivering his lines beautifully as a rather jolly, youthful Shakespeare, Imogen Daines deploying a fine spirit of adventure and a strong pair of eyebrows as his Viola, and Geraldine Alexander producing two splendid cameo performances as Viola’s nurse and Queen Elizabeth I, whose unfailing wisdom helps to set everything straight.

The play’s problem, though, is that it just cannot shake off its essential character as an ingenious, witty, and profoundly soothing piece of propaganda for the cultural and political status quo. Apart from a hint of feminist talk about women’s sexual liberation, it has nothing to say except to celebrate the man already recognised as England’s greatest literary genius, and to romanticise the moment in English history that spawned him.

It flatters those who know Shakespeare’s work well, and dazzles and amuses those who don’t, while also slightly patronising them. Which is perhaps why, for all its excellence, it’s an evening of theatre both easily enjoyable, and instantly forgettable; bland, beautiful, and completely unchallenging.

There’s far more intensity – and some equally fine acting – in this week’s Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime drama, which revisits the case of Oscar Slater, an innocent German-Jewish immigrant condemned to death for murder in Glasgow in 1909, then reprieved and sent for life into penal servitude in Peterhead.

Written and directed by Stuart Hepburn, Oscar Slater – The Trial That Shamed A City is narrated by the mighty Ron Donachie as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose fierce campaigning finally won Slater’s release, two decades later.

What is striking about the play, though, is how closely it meshes with current debates both about attitudes to immigration, and about Scotland’s tendency to an ill-founded complacency on matters of racism and bigotry.

From the outset, the case against Oscar Slater was wafer-thin, and conducted with an almost unbelievable sloppiness by the City of Glasgow police, who simply assumed Slater’s guilt, and suppressed all evidence to the contrary. All of this is conveyed with perfect focus and a fierce sense of purpose by Ron Donachie, by Ashley Smith as the female victim and witnesses, and by an outstanding Kevin Lennon as Slater.

And as the play’s subtitle suggests, the message is clear; that Glasgow may still pride itself on its image as a welcoming city for migrants, but that there is never any room for complacency about the presence of dark forces of racism, intolerance and corruption, right here in bonnie Scotland.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Both shows have final performances today.