“Who will want a play by William Shakespeare?” his wife Ann asks him, unkindly, in their home in the hick town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, as he is about to depart for London in 1589 to become a playwright. It’s a crafty first line in “Will,” a TV series that launches tonight on the TNT cable network: The show is clearly banking on the hope that, since almost everybody four centuries later wants a play by William Shakespeare, there will be an audience for a speculative TV series about his early career in London.
“I can’t spend the rest of my life making gloves,” Will tells Ann.
“We have three children,” she says in rebuttal.
But it’s no use. Off goes the 25-year-old William Shakespeare (portrayed by the 24-year-old Laurie Davidson) in the first of ten episodes in the series — a series that features, among other attributes, a cast of soap opera-level hunks and beauties in some extremely graphic scenes of torture, slightly more demure humping, and the first rap battle in iambic pentameter.
“Will” was conceived by Craig Pearce, an Australian screenwriter and actor who is a frequent collaborator with Baz Luhrman – on Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, the 2013 film of The Great Gatsby, and even Romeo + Juliet. That film’s 1970s punk treatment of Shakespeare’s tale of doomed lovers offers a hint at the tone taken with Will, which uses a punk score. On his departure to make his career, we hear The Clash’s “London Calling.”
But the actors wear Elizabethan costumes, both the exteriors and the interiors are persuasively detailed re-creations of the period, and there are some clever almost-Shakespearean lines that one could take as the early stirrings of the future full-fledged poet genius. Since so little is known about the young Shakespeare, one can more or less accept the scenes in the first episode of “Will” that lead to his first London production. We see Will seeking out the home of James Burbage (Colm Meaney) with a play in hand for Burbage’s theater company. But his son Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood), when discovering this rustic at the threshold, laughs in his face, and shuts the door in his face. Will is saved by Burbage’s daughter Alice (Olivia DeJonge), who takes a liking to him – and maybe more than a liking? — and escorts him to her father’s theater, where James is right at that moment desperate for a play.
“I have a play,” Will shouts out. It’s about a heroic English king, Edward III (Shakespeare did in fact write Edward III, and some scholars speculate that it was produced as early as 1589, though most think not.) “There’s love, war, death and betrayal,” Will says.
“Does it have any comedy?”
“The Scottish characters are quite funny.”
The reason why Burbage was stuck for a play is that the hugely popular Christopher Marlowe won’t do any more plays for him; Marlowe is being paid more by a Burbage rival not to write..
There is something seductively evil about Marlowe – helped along by his portrayal by hot punkish Jamie Campbell Bower
But Marlowe figures in a plot that drives much of the non-Shakespearean aspects of “Will.” Will is a Catholic who has been asked to bring a letter to his cousin, the Jesuit Robert Southwell (Max Bennett), who is in hiding from the authorities, in particular the queen’s chief inquisitor, Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner.) It is illegal to be Catholic in England in 1589 (hence the scenes of torture), and Will’s letter falls into Topcliffe’s hands, thus setting up what will obviously provide some tension for the series. Will Will be unmasked as a Catholic; will Topcliffe capture and torture him? And what of Alice?
Since history doesn’t reveal for sure that Shakespeare was ever Catholic, much less involved in the Catholic resistance — among much else presented in “Will” — theater lovers who are enticed into the journey through this cable TVland biography should be prepared to leave the Bard behind.
“Will” is on TNT Mondays at 9 p.m. ET