Every actor dreams of playing Shakespeare. But Laurie Davidson actually is playing Shakespeare in TNT’s new series, “Will,” premiering Monday. As envisioned by writer Craig Pearce and director Shekhar Kapur, this is a jazzy version of the 20-something Shakespeare as he pounces on London and prepares to take on the town.
Davidson was still in drama school when he landed the part after six auditions. But he performed several roles from the Bard as a student. “I’ve grown up with it, and I have seen, living in London, a lot of his plays. So having that love for Shakespeare, when this job came along, it was, like, incredible.”
This is not your father’s Shakespeare, he said. “We have to remember we are seeing him before everything we know about this guy. We’ve had 400 years in our minds to go, ‘He was this great person, this literary genius.’ But we are seeing him right at the beginning of that story where he doesn’t even know himself or where it’s going to end up. So I think, in that way, it has to be a very different person from the history books.”
In fact, the history books are lacking, said Pearce, a longtime writing partner with fellow Australian Baz Luhrmann. “He’s the most famous person in the world that no one really knows anything about except for a few facts. And then beyond that, there’s a lot of speculation.”
He added, “There’s not one letter, not one personal diary entry written by him that survived. So all we have is his vast body of work. And it’s a little bit like the Bible. You read into that work what you want to read into it because, really, he wrote about everything. In the beginning he was just struggling to find who he was and to find his voice like so many of us today.”
Pearce has been developing this undertaking for 10 years. “And I did an enormous amount of research,” he said. “And we all did as we joined the project. And I don’t think there’s anything in terms of what happens to Shakespeare in the show that a historian could point to and say, ‘That absolutely didn’t happen.’ So we’ve stuck within the broad parameters of the history and then made imaginative leaps from what we do know.”
“History is always interpretation,” added Kapur, known best for his two films about the first Queen Elizabeth. “If you cannot take history and interpret it to our modern times, it has no relevance. … So we’ve taken Shakespeare, whatever we know, and interpreted it for us, for this generation and now.”
The series is punctuated by a clamorous display of modern music. That’s on purpose, Pearce said. “Theater back then, it was like rock ’n’ roll or punk rock. It was a completely revolutionary form of popular entertainment. It wasn’t something for the intellectuals. It wasn’t something up on a pedestal. It was something for the masses, and it was being created really, really rapidly and evolving.
“So you went to a theater. You were eating. You were drinking. Some people were fornicating. And if they loved it, if the audience loved it, they would cheer and be so passionate about it.
“If they didn’t like it, they would burn the place down, and they would riot.”
Davidson sees Shakespeare and his playwright rival Christopher Marlowe as the rock stars of their era. “If you look at the rock icons of the ’70s punk world, people like Mick Jagger, people like David Bowie, [Marlowe and Shakespeare] were the rock stars that girls would queue for blocks to see these iconic figures.”