Art beat

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
Once upon a time, 1593 to be exact, a struggling young writer called Will Shakespeare was suffering from writer's block: Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter just would not come together. Shakespeare in Love does not scruple to make jokes at the expense of our most celebrated playwright, but they are usually witty, often referring obliquely to his work and enhancing rather than undermining an appreciation of Shakespearean language.

This charming but unsentimental film, tipped to win Oscars and already nominated for Golden Globes in the States, came about because a parent was asked to help with homework. American screenwriter Marc Norman's son got him thinking about how little is known of Shakespeare's life and he decided to imagine what might have inspired Romeo and Juliet.

The result is a swift-paced romantic comedy in which Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) falls for the fictional high-born Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a spirited rebel who disguises herself as a boy to become an actor. Inspired by his new-found muse, the impoverished scribbler writes not only the most touching love scenes in the language, but the sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day".

Scraps of dialogue picked up in the streets or murmured in Viola's bed find their way into the play. But Viola is promised to the unsmiling (fictional) Earl of Wessex (Colin Firth) and the romance becomes a tragedy as the playwright's own circumstances change and Viola is bound for Virginia. Guess what the abandoned lover writes next...

Shakespeare in Love is one of the films chosen by Film Education to be shown free to young people under the National Year of Reading's Books on Screen theme for January. There is, of course, no book as such, unless you count Romeo and Juliet, but the script itself would be instruc-tive. Tom Stoppard was brought in to work on Nor-man's draft and his quicksilver word-play and acquaintance with the original texts take the film way beyond the usual standards of Hollywood.

For once, a screenwriter is given full, deserved acknow-ledgement, while making jokes at the expense of the parallel humble playwright's role in commercial Elizabethan theatre. The result is that the film achieves what has rarely been managed since Shake-speare himself was pulling them in on Bankside - a piece of work that appeals on all levels. If you happen to know the work of the Jacobean play-wright John Webster, you'll enjoy the fact that a boy-actor purporting to be him revels in the gory bits of his elders' work. If you don't, you'll enjoy his grin and low-life cheek.

The style goes for seething Tudor life rather than slavish verisimilitude; Stoppard knows that forays into fictional history are an attempt to understand our own times. Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) is shrewd, clever and awe-inspiring.

Bawdy talk, wit, sublime language, bloody and farcical fights, gorgeous costumes, a beautifully-acted last scene from Romeo and Juliet - what more could a "literary" film provide? On general release from January 29.

The David Glass Ensemble won much acclaim for the first part of the theatre piece The Lost Child Trilogy, The Hansel and Gretel Machine last year. The company held workshops with dispossessed children in many countries during their tour of the Far East. The second part of the trilogy, a version of Alice through the Looking Glass refracted fantastically through the imagination of a child contemplating loss, begins a country-wide tour next week. Details: 0171 323 2355.

If The Lost Child celebrates children's creativity, Woodlands Art Gallery in south London will be displaying it until February 7. "The Art of Learning" is an exhibition of secondary school art from Lewisham and Greenwich. Details: 0181 858 5847.

It is almost time once again for Music for Youth's Lollipop Proms, free concerts in which young people perform for packed audiences of children. This year, the proms will be on February 8 at 11am and 1.30pm in the Royal Festival Hall in London and on March 8 in Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

Among treats in London will be the Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra and a group of London-Irish teenagers, Island Road, playing jigs and polkas. Details: 0181 870 9624.

Heather Neill

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