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‘Will’ review: Lively interpretation of Shakespeare’s life

Laurie Davidson plays the title role in TNT's

Laurie Davidson plays the title role in TNT's "Will." Credit: TNT / Alex Bailey


WHEN| WHERE Premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on TNT


WHAT IT’S ABOUT It’s 1589 and 25-year-old William Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson) leaves home for London to find fame and fortune. But his father also wants him to bring a mysterious letter to the Jesuit Robert Southwell (Max Bennett), also his cousin, who is hiding somewhere in London. As a Catholic, Shakespeare knows the risks — a death sentence in Reformation England — but agrees to somehow find Southwell. He’s more intent on job-seeking, and approaches James Burbage’s (Colm Meaney) theater company. Rebuffed by Burbage’s son, Richard (Mattias Inwood), Will gets an introduction through Burbage’s daughter, Alice (Olivia DeJonge). London is wild, also packed with talent, like actor William Kempe (William Houston) and superstar playwright Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower). Will is determined to make his mark, while the queen’s top prosecutor, Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner), is determined to find the Catholic playwright who is new to town.

MY SAY Full of color, vitality, and pretty faces, “Will” is also full of baloney. But it’s not entirely full of baloney, and there’s the rub, for between some generous slices of sandwich meat an entertaining new series finds its unsteady footing.

There’s some truth here, but there’s some balderdash, too. No big deal: “Will” is simply part of a centuries-long tradition of parsing the surviving evidence, and after not finding enough, the would-be biographer guesses, or makes up, the rest. Shakespeare has only himself to blame. If only in between writing 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and a few long poems, he had found time for his autobiography, he could have settled these questions, or set the record straight. Was he Catholic? Google it. The answers are conflicting. Was he gay? Google that (also conflicting). Did he even write his plays? Don’t bother Googling. You’ll waste the rest of your day reading those theories.

Absent facts, the theories have abounded, and thrived. (Shakespeare also bowdlerized history when it suited him.) “Will,” at least, adds some compelling layers and brush strokes to them. Its highly stylized London, for example, teems with vagabonds, thieves, cutthroats and spies. The chaos back then must have been overwhelming or intoxicating. The Clash’s “London Calling” tracks as Will enters town, drawing (or forcing) parallels with London’s ’70s punk scene. That’s a wild stretch, but well within bounds of artistic license. Who knows? Maybe the Buzzcocks or the Sex Pistols would have been perfectly at home in 1589 London.

Burbage’s theater is a riot — literally. Boisterous crowds surge, then nearly overwhelm, the stage. Mostly drunk, randy and talented, the actors strut upon it, and occasionally fall off it. When words or sanity fail Kempe, he launches himself into the audience, in what may be the first instance of moshing. When an actor barks out the Elizabethan equivalent of “line!” someone besides Will offers a suggestion. The idea that his plays — at least the early ones — were partly crowdsourced seems sensible enough.

Lively interpretation eventually gives way to modern TV stock characters, however. Davidson’s Will is a doe-eyed “rustic” who comes to town in search of fame and finds temptation instead. DeJonge’s Alice Burbage is his potential Juliet, with flaxen hair and cerulean eyes. Will’s rival — apparently also hers — is Marlowe, who is full of treachery and lust for Shakespeare. Bremner’s Topcliffe is a single-minded sadist who loves nothing more than a good drawing and quartering. Good as these actors are, they can’t quite make you forget you’re watching a TNT drama with some predictable storylines and obvious outcomes.

But it’s that energy along with an unmistakable passion that brings “Will” to life. This sprawling cast knows it’s serving a prime-time drama more than the Bard. It does seems to be having an awfully good time.

BOTTOM LINE Entertaining newcomer full of energy, passion and baloney — the ideal summer diversion.

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