Bill

Director: Richard Bracewell (2015)

This celebratory and silly send-up of Shakespeare is a witty and affectionate tribute to the great Bard’s work.

It’s a thoroughly British entertainment,  created by the same people as the CBBC Horrible Histories TV series, which was based on the brilliant books by Terry Deary.

Performed with energy and respect, it’s full of knockabout humour and knowing jokes.

They even manage to slip in some Shakespearean verse from time to time.

Set in the wretched squalor of 1593, it focuses on the lost years of William ‘Bill’ Shakespeare prior to him becoming the world’s greatest playwright.

Played with an optimistic and gentle naivety by Mathew Baynton, Bill’s a failed musician who leaves behind his family and goes to London to become a writer.

He arrives in a filthy, villainous, murderous and plague-ridden Croydon.

As a former resident of the much maligned outer London borough, I promise you it’s no longer not quite as bad as all that.

Once there Bill takes writing tips from hard-up dramatist Christopher Marlowe, a marvellously morose and mendacious Jim Howick.

The pair unwittingly become involved in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth.

Armed with bare chested vanity and a false moustache, Ben Willbond brings brio to the dastardly King Philip II of Spain.

Real-life husband and wife Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory play Sir Richard Hawkins and the Queen.

The former riffs on his role as captured soldier in TV’s Homeland, the latter is all yellow teeth and peeling face paint.

What follows is a series of comic misunderstandings, astonishing coincidences, unconvincing disguises, quarrelling lovers, ghosts, murders, betrayal and passionate intrigues.Basically everything you’d expect from a Shakespeare comedy.

Actors appear in several different roles, men can’t help but dress as women and there is a play to be performed before the Queen.

All’s well that end’s well and I imagine Shakespeare would love this caper, possibly nearly as much as I did.

A Little Chaos

Director: Alan Rickman (2015)

When love is planted in Versailles, it takes blooming forever to flower in this wilting period drama.

As a pair of lovelorn gardeners work together to build the King an outdoor ballroom, the intrigues of the royal court and professional rivalries threaten their budding romance.

A far more serious impediment to happiness is his adherence to classicism in contrast to her embrace of modernism – but surely love will overcome these seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

It’s Paris in 1682 and King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) has announced he will build a palace at Versailles. Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) is the gloomy landscape gardener commissioned to realise the King’s grandiose vision.

Despite being the son of France’s most famous gardener, Andre needs assistance to complete an outdoor ballroom before the King arrives for an inspection – so he tenders out the work.

Widowed gardener Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) applies but is brusquely dismissed for incorporating chaos in her designs. But after one fleeting glimpse at Sabine’s private garden, Andre’s creative sap rises and he is inspired to offer her a job.

As well as being knowledgeable in horticulture and engineering, Sabine is well up for getting down and filthy. But the weather is against her and before anyone can say ‘Titanic‘, she’s up to he knees in mud and up to her neck in water.

Sabine’s immersed in her work to compensate for a childless life. Andre has lank hair and is trapped in a Byron-esque baggy shirt and an unhappy marriage to his rampant pest of a spouse, Francoise (Helen McCrory).

Tasteful sincerity, a talented cast and handsome costumes get bogged down in mannered and misjudged direction, forcing an unsmiling cast go about their work with grim conviction and making it unnecessarily hard work for us to like or sympathise with the characters.

There’s a carriage-coach crash, some jealousy, a bit of plotting, off-hand affairs and plenty of digging. The orchestra is on over-time, ushering emotions on and off stage.

As French labourers saunter off-site for croissants and coffee, it’s difficult to distinguish between pre-arranged professional sabotage and the natural French proclivity against hard work.

When women gather they compete with tales of child-rearing woe like a female version of Monty Python’s four Yorkshireman sketch.

The script assumes some knowledge of France geography – such as the distance between Paris and Versailles – then abandons it’s use allowing characters pop up at a moments notice with news and plots from afar. Or maybe a-near. Who knows?

Steven Waddington appears as a rough-voiced groundsman called Duras. He offers moral and practical support like a chaste Mellors from Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

McCory is full of anger, jealousy and brittle self-loathing but her character seems to have wandered in from Dangerous Liaisons by mistake. Stanley Tucci prances in on turbo-camp for a couple of scenes bringing much needed humour but little drama.

Schoenaerts performance is extraordinarily dull and Winslet – amazingly – isn’t much better. The fleeting moments of quality are in the rare scenes where she and Rickman appear together.

It is in these stagey moments Rickman the director is on confident ground, allowing Rickman the actor to demonstrate his consummate ability and stagecraft. Though it’s reflects poorly on Rickman that he makes Winslet play straight-man to his sad clown of a King.

Rickman unashamedly crowbars his character into proceedings. The King hears confession, absolves guilt and hands out directives for future behaviour, creating an environment where love can blossom.

It’s similar to the role played by Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench) in Shakespeare in Love – though I doubt Rickman will win an Oscar for his work here.