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August 07, 2017

Will Call

The Bard gets a rock ‘n’ roll edge in TNT’s new take on Elizabethan times.

Maria Neuman
  • Director Shekhar Kapur (arms raised) on the Theatre set

    Aidan Monaghan
  • Craig Pearce

    Aidan Monaghan

When the guitar riffs of The Sex Pistols and The Clash ramp up during the opening credits, it’s clear that TNT’s Will - chronicling the early career of William Shakespeare — isn’t a classic period piece.

“Theater back then was the punk rock of its time,” says Craig Pearce, series’ executive producer, writer and showrunner. “There was an energy and vibrancy, especially among the working class, so we wanted to convey that, as well as to make the story feel relevant for today.”

A longtime collaborator of Baz Luhrmann, Pearce co-wrote Romeo+ Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby with the famed writer-producer-director, a fellow Aussie. So he’s clearly familiar with classic fiction that’s been given a larger-than-life twist.

“I worked on this script for years,” he says of Will, “and the longer it took, the more I became fascinated with the Elizabethan world. It really was when popular culture, as we know it today, was being born.”

The 10-episode series, which premiered July 10, tells the raucous, violent and often raunchy story of a young William Shakespeare (newcomer Laurie Davidson). The tale unspools in the crowded London suburb of Shoreditch (home of the first successful theater in England, aptly titled The Theatre), during a time in Shakespeare’s life that has not been widely documented.

“They actually call them his lost years,” adds Pearce, who penned the  first two episodes and the season finale.

Shekhar Kapur, the Indian-born director of the 1998 feature Elizabeth: The Golden Age, directed the first three episodes, as well as the finale (he’s  also an executive producer). Given the task of setting the vivid visual tone of  the series and creating the working-class area of London,  he took inspiration from the slums of Mumbai for added color and flair.

“My initial pitch to TNT was that Shakespeare lived his life in a chaotic swirl,” says Kapur, who shot the pilot in London; the production then moved to Wales, where the lively  streets were re-created on soundstages and backlots.

“I brought back pictures and showed my production designer, James Foster, and we adapted how people lived in crowded conditions and inserted the colors seen in Mumbai.” Like many who have studied the classic literature in school, Kapur now has a newfound love for the Bard. “I think if Shakespeare had been alive today,” he says, “he would have been a rapper.” 

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017

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