William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, still the greatest writer the English language has produced, is back, as he always will be. A New York production of “Julius Caesar,” in which the eponymous emperor was represented in the likeness of a certain sitting president, was recently controversial. Jay Z quotes “Hamlet” on his new “Marcy Me.” The Shonda Rhimes-produced “Romeo and Juliet” sequel, “Still Star-Crossed,” is running right now on ABC. (Yes, it’s been canceled, but that’s not Shakespeare’s fault.)
Monday brings the premiere of TNT’s “Will,” an imagining of the playwright’s first days in London by Craig Pearce, who co-scripted, with their director Baz Luhrmann, “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby.” It’s a mixed bag — of melodrama and comedy, historicism and revisionism — that is always good to look at, if not always to watch.
It’s 1589. Young Will Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson), provincial actor and aspiring scribe, attractively lean and hungry for fame, heads off to the bawdy big city of London, leaving wife and children behind, as the Clash’s “London Calling” plays on the soundtrack.
Soon enough, he will encounter fellow real people of history including James Burbage (Colm Meaney), who built and runs the theater known as the Theater; his preening actor son, Richard (Mattias Inwood); and their resident superstar clown, William Kemp (William Houston). Most of the major characters have some basis in history, if only a name. (But what’s in a — never mind.)
James Burbage also has a daughter, Alice (Olivia DeJonge). As a 21st century drama of the 16th century, “Will” requires strong female characters out of step with the times — though quite in the spirit of Shakespeare — who kick back against convention, fight the power. Alice describes herself half ironically as “that most useless of creatures, an educated woman,” but although the only work she’s allowed in the theater is copying out parts, before long, she’s helping shape Will’s art.
Will (noticing sun streaming into the theater): “Light. What light through yonder. Through yonder. Window. What light through yonder window.”
Will: “‘Soft, what light through yonder window breaks.’ That’s good!”
There is a lot of that sort of thing.
So little is known of Shakespeare himself — cities of supposition have been built on a foundation of crumbs — that there is a lot of room to go with interpretation that still falls within the range of plausibility, not to say scholarly approval. Although “Will” is generally speaking a period piece, with some serious regard for detail, there are modern anachronisms aplenty, to make history seem contemporary and cool. (“You must live fast, die young and leave a pox-ridden corpse,” Richard Burbage says, paraphrasing a line from the far future.)
Here, the Elizabethan theater scene is refracted, occasionally, through the lens of 1970s London glam and punk; the soundtrack teems with T. Rex, Bowie, the Sex Pistols; there is moshing among the groundlings — the moshlings? — and diving from the stage. The interplay between Will and already successful playwright, louche wit, orgy arranger and self-professed spy Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), looking something like Brian Eno in his fabulous Roxy Music years, has at times the flavor of Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Todd Haynes’ glam fantasy “Velvet Goldmine.”
Among the things we don’t know about Shakespeare but endlessly discuss are his religious views, and particularly the question of whether he was a secret Catholic, Catholicism having gone underground in those days under deadly pressure from the Protestant establishment. Pearce has voted “somewhat,” filling Will’s head with guilty dreams and going all in on a theoretical connection with the poet-priest Robert Southwell (Max Bennett) “the most hunted man in England,” who wants to draw Will to the resistance.
It can be difficult at times to tease what’s meant seriously here from what’s meant to be funny — as when lines from future Shakespeare plays are folded into the dialogue, or a character he will later write bursts into the room. (Possibly the ambiguity is intended). The drama, though action-packed and often dark, with royal torturer Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner) the series’ evilest villain, is never particularly convincing, and often cornball. Davidson’s Will never seems authentically connected to any of the characters he meets, as much as we are clearly meant to feel he is — torn by Alice this way, Southwell that way, Marlowe another way. The most effective option, I think, is to treat as much of it as possible as comedy. That works pretty well.
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd