Roush Review: The Bawdy Adventures of a Young ‘Will’ Shakespeare

Will - Roush Review

Five centuries later, William Shakespeare’s plays are still making noise. Doubt it? Just look up Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare’s staying power, enduring appeal and ability to generate headlines that stir emotions and controversy would no doubt thrill the young hero of Will. But don’t tune in expecting a stuffy museum piece. This is a colorfully exuberant imagining of the budding playwright as a starving artist thirsting for attention and opportunity amid the pungently chaotic bustle of 16th-century London.

More brat than Bard of Avon as this fast-paced series commences, Will (a rakishly appealing Laurie Davidson) leaves his family behind in 1589 to pursue his dreams in the big city.

“Who are you?” challenges Alice (Olivia DeJonge), the spirited daughter of belligerent impresario James Burbage (Colm Meaney), in whose raucous theater Will yearns to find his audience. “No one. Yet,” he replies. Though not, obviously, for long.

Created by Craig Pearce, who successfully souped up Romeo + Juliet in 1996, Will is stimulating, refreshingly original entertainment, rowdy in its lurid re-creation of a riotous Elizabethan era where there is an insatiable appetite for what’s new. (Even so, they might wonder at the show’s contemporary soundtrack, including on-the-nose choices like “London’s Calling.”) Will is desperate to make his mark, even if it means cribbing plots from foreign sources, spiced with a language all his own, and the show has fun imagining the origins of some of his most famous phrases.

Though Alice provides forbidden romantic temptation, this is less Shakespeare in Love than Will in Danger, because his Catholic roots make him a target for religious persecution, led by an evil inquisitor, Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner), who sees theaters as “snares set by the devil to catch souls.” Ironically, spying for Topcliffe is Shakespeare’s flamboyant rival scribe, Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower), whose own unbridled debauchery tests the limits of 2017 cable.

Succumbing to TNT’s current fascination with edgy excess, Will at times goes overboard with graphic depictions of torture—was there even waterboarding back in the Middle Ages? (turns out there was)—and, naturally, sex. But in essence, this is the story of a man whose pen is his sword and whose fighting words resonate across time. The play’s the thing—and so’s the show.

Will, Series Premiere, Monday, July 10, 9/8c, TNT