Before he became the bane of uninterested high-school students, William Shakespeare was a total badass.
Shakespeare’s influence permeates everything in American popular culture, yet the misperception persists that his works are highbrow oeuvres accessible only to the intelligentsia. Shakespeare didn’t write plays to be performed in ivory towers or to be read in third period English class. He was a common man who created entertainment for an audience of common Londoners. Shakespeare was a rock star.
TNT’s new period drama Will (premiering Monday, July 10, at 9pm ET/PT) depicts Shakespeare as a wide-eyed young dreamer who leaves his wife, kids and the small town of Stratford to pursue his ambitions of fame and fortune in London’s theater scene. But in Will, the theater scene looks more like a mosh pit at an Insane Clown Posse show than a matinee at the Old Vic. Everything from the soundtrack to the costumes has the vibe of Elizabethan England by way of the Sex Pistols.
Playing the part of Shakespeare is Laurie Davidson, who’s first acting job for the screen happens to be the role of a lifetime. “I grew up in London going to the theater. I grew up with these plays and seeing this guy’s work,” Davidson says. “When I heard they were making this TV show, I was like, ‘I need to get this part. Are you kidding me? It’s too good to be true.’” Davidson put in his work and did eight auditions to get the role. He was released from drama school to shoot the Will pilot, then returned to complete his degree at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Like a plot from one of his plays, Shakespeare’s journey in Will is wrought with danger, intrigue and romance. Will’s an outsider challenging superstar playwrights like Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower). He’s testing his morals in a passionate affair with Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), the theater owner’s daughter. And he’s putting his life at risk by being Catholic at a time in England when it was punishable by grisly death.
That leads to scenes in Will that are more Titus Andronicus than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare is in the sights of the queen’s enforcer, Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner), who delights in torturing suspected traitors. “Things were brutal. Everything was so much more visceral,” Davidson says. “People were killed in the street, and that was part of their spectator sport. The Elizabethans, as much as they were the greatest lovers, they were also the most horrific and brutal.” You’ve been warned.
Shakespeare’s stories are still told today because they dealt with universal themes, and a 21st-century TV audience will find Will’s struggles not all that different from their own. “For Will, he follows his dreams and his passions in the face of poverty, in the face of danger from Topcliffe, in the face of persecution,” Davidson says. “The actors were often outcast, and the artists — still as it is today — are neglected sometimes. We forget how important art is to reflect the society that we’re in. And that’s really what Shakespeare wanted to do. He wanted to hold up a mirror to his society and to the nature of mankind.”
— Will (@WillonTNT) July 4, 2017