What happens when the best-known playwright in history gets writer's block? That's the jumping-off point for Shakespeare in Love, a 2014 play by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) adapted from the Oscar-winning 1998 film written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.
The movie's Oscars included awards for best picture, best actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), best supporting actress (Judi Dench), best original screenplay and best original score. It also won for best art direction-direction and best costume design, so the Melbourne Theatre Company's production has had a lot to live up to, and there has been plenty of care devoted to how it looks.
Set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova and her team were kept busy: she designed 80 costumes - for a cast of 15 - that were made by 40 wardrobe staff, including two bespoke shoemakers, two wig makers, two art finishers and two milliners. One team was dedicated to making 30 Elizabethan ruffs by hand, each taking more than a day to craft, including one for canine cast member Daisy, playing the role of Spot.
All this attention to detail helps create the milieu of the show.
Shakespeare in Love is set in London in 1593. Actor and writer Will Shakespeare (played by Michael Wahr) is having problems. As well as romantic and financial entanglements, he's writing a comedy by order of Queen Elizabeth I (Deidre Rubenstein), which he's called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, and it isn't going well.
Will is desperately in need of inspiration.
Then Viola de Lesseps (Claire van der Boom), the stagestruck daughter of a wealthy merchant, comes to the theatre disguised as a young man, Thomas Kent, in order to audition (as women were not allowed on the stage at that time: female parts were played by boys).
Her arrival proves to be inspirational, distracting and confusing for Will. When the playwright discovers "Thomas's" true identity, he and Viola become increasingly close.
Soon Will is turning his new play from a comedy to a tragedy - despite the Queen's desire for something light and funny - and giving it a new title.
Van der Boom enjoyed playing the dual roles of Viola and Viola-as-Thomas.
"I had licence to go nuts," she says.
It's the first time she's played a man on stage and she enjoyed the challenge, changing her voice and accent to tackle the role.
Viola, she says, "is desperate not to be confined by social boundaries".
She wants to be on the stage, despite not being allowed to because of her sex and her upper-class status.
As well as this, Shakespeare in Love, she says, is both a love story and a homage to the theatre. There are lots of jokes about and sly references to producers, actors and other aspects of the art.
And, of course, it celebrates William Shakespeare himself.
Michael Wahr says it's an honour to play Shakespeare, "to take up the quill, as it were".
Hall's script, he says, follows the story of the film but he gives it his own touches and makes it work in the different medium.
Wahr says William Shakespeare's work was what led to his interest in acting - even before he appeared in one of the plays.
He studied Shakespeare at school and as a boy was taken to Twelfth Night and then King Lear. This, he says, "caused a huge shift in my vocabulary", inspiring him.
Shakespeare's works, he says, are "complexly simple and simply complex" in their language and ideas, which helps make them still relevant, 500 years later.
He's acted in several of the plays including Twelfth Night, Othello and Julius Caesar, and says, "The dream would be a five-year-contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company playing lead roles".
But for now he's happy to play the man who inspired him to be an actor.
- Shakespeare in Love. By Lee Hall, adapted from the screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Directed by Simon Phillips. Melbourne Theatre Company. Canberra Theatre. August 22 to 31. canberratheatrecentre.com.au.