By now, the notion that William Shakespeare’s plays need to be modernized to be cool or accessible is less cool than a simpler idea you don’t hear very much: People ought to go back to the source and experience Shakespeare’s plays exactly the way he wrote ’em. After decades of projects such as Shakespeare in Love, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and the Twelfth Night adaptation She’s the Man, contemporary audiences are more used to seeing hyped-up, glammed-up Shakespeare than they are in experiencing the language or the time period in which the author composed. Therefore, a truly adventurous presentation of Shakespeare and his work would be one that was faithful to history and the text, not (to take a recent, notorious example) a Julius Caesar featuring a Donald Trump lookalike, or — premiering Monday with two back-to-back episodes — the new TNT series Will.
In Will, Laurie Davidson portrays the twentysomething Will Shakespeare, newly arrived in London, his eyes ablaze with ambition and callow enthusiasm. He falls in with the theatrical troupe headed up by actor James Burbage (Colm Meany) and featuring Burbage’s attractive, Will-tempted daughter Alice (Olivia DeJonge). Will meets and makes a frenemy of his idol, playwright Christopher Marlowe (Jamie Campbell Bower). The premiere reaches its climax with a scene in which Will matches iambic-pentameter-line for iambic-pentameter-line with a rival — we’re very much intended to think of this as the 16th century equivalent of a rap battle in the manner of 8 Mile or, more to the immediate rip-off, Hamilton.
Will was created by writer Craig Pearce, writer of the Romeo + Juliet screenplay. Everyone under the age of 30 is pretty. All the young men sport the TV-required 21st-century stubble. The audience for Shakespeare’s plays sports dyed hair (green beards; turquoise top-knots) and smears of bright colors across their faces: Everyone looks as though they’ve stepped out of an Adam Ant video. The series commences with a trot through a frowsy neighborhood scored to the music of the Clash’s “London Calling.” So, Will’s definition of 2017 hipness is actually 1980s punk rock. For all its frenetic pacing, Will seems wheezily old-fashioned, the umpteenth attempt to attract a young audience to great art by modernizing it — except that Will’s ideas of modernity are a half-century old.
Will premieres July 10 at 9 p.m. on TNT.