Will and 'Will' Struggle to Find the Drama in Shakespeare's Origin Story

A wide-eyed Will Shakespeare hits the big city in Will. (Photo by Alex Bailey, courtesy of TNT).

Seeing William Shakespeare as a relatively blank slate doesn't give the audience much to sink their teeth into.


Airtime: Mondays, 9pm
Cast: Laurie Davidson, Olivia DeJonge
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1 - "The Play's the Thing"
Network: TNT
Air date: 2017-07-10

It took me several tries to get through all of Will's pilot, and this is coming from someone who loves both Shakespeare's plays and the first two seasons of Reign. For one thing, it's not as if William Shakespeare -- as an historical figure or as a fictional character -- has been exactly underrepresented in television and film, so already Will has its work cut out for it: what kind of interpretation of Shakespeare, the most famous playwright in pretty much all of history, will Will introduce to make watching it worthwhile?

Will has been touted as something of an origin story, where Will Shakespeare, a simple glove-maker from Stratford, leaves behind his wife and three children and makes his way to London in the hopes of becoming the greatest playwright ever. The trailer for Will implied that the show would tell the story of how simple, naive Will became the legendary Shakespeare. That is, a story in which Will begins as a wide-eyed ingenue and, through his involvement in the riotous and sexy London theater scene of the late 1500s, evolves into the vaunted figure whose works we either read in school, saw in films directed by Kenneth Branagh, or some combination of the above.

Watching the actual pilot quickly puts the lie to Will as some kind of titillating, prettified incarnation of Shakespeare's history. There's an excessive amount of gore and a lot of unexpected violence, all in service of the overall lingering story arc of Will hiding his Catholicism in ferociously Protestant London. If the show were a bit more concerned with the historical aspects of Shakespeare and his times, then perhaps a "William Shakespeare: Secret Catholic" plot-line could really be quite gripping and interesting; indeed, there's probably an entire show to be made about the political tensions inherent in Will, a clandestine Catholic, having Protestant Elizabeth I of England as his main patron.

Instead, the looming threat Will faces simply by practicing his Catholic fate is treated like a flavor, to be swapped out amongst the bawdy puns, the inevitable love triangle, and the long nights scribbling on parchment with a quill pen until a eureka moment occurs; Will's pilot suffers for this tendency. It also creates quite a bit of mood whiplash to go from one sequence where Will gets stabbed for being a Catholic to a pair of stage actors in garish makeup having a quick tryst backstage during a performance.

Will is also not helped by the rather bland and overly earnest leading performance of newcomer Laurie Davidson, who so resembles a younger Aaron Taylor-Johnson that I almost wish Taylor-Johnson were anchoring this show. An origin story Shakespeare coming to the big city and losing his innocence in the heady theater community while honing his craft could be worth watching, but for my money, the best depiction of Shakespeare was Dean Lennox Kenny's turn in Doctor Who's season three episode "The Shakespeare Code". Kenny played Shakespeare as endlessly crafty, witty, and unafraid to imply his enjoyment of both male and female companions. In contrast, Will's portrayal of Shakespeare as a relatively blank slate just doesn't give the audience much to sink their teeth into, because the entirety of the punchline amounts to: "ha-ha, he certainly shed that innocence, now didn't he!"

The performances in Will pilot as a whole suffer from the misguided idea that better acting equals louder cockney British accents and big, swooning body language. It doesn't. Among the side cast, which includes Mattias Inwood (The Shannara Chronicles) as Richard Burbage, Jamie Campbell Bower (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) as Christopher Marlowe (filling the obligatory rival role), Colm Meaney (Con Air) as James Burbage, and Lukas Rolfe (Fury) in a basically unbearable performance as the young street urchin Presto, there's not a moment of subtlety to be seen. The bigger-is-better style of acting employed in this episode has merely one moment of payoff: a rather comical rap-battle-esque contest of wits between Will and another actor in a tavern, because watching people pretending to be tipsy while one-upping each other with lines of iambic pentameter is actually pretty entertaining.

Honestly, watching the pilot made me think of Cameron Crowe, and not in a good way; it's like the Almost Famous-lite version of William Shakespeare in that Will treats theater in London as this all-consuming obsession, where the actors and playwrights are treated as rockstar-gods by fans who are simultaneously incredibly inebriated and cultured connoisseurs of theater. Indeed, Will Shakespeare has a similar narrative function as Patrick Fugit's character in Almost Famous, where, as a nobody, he manages to get himself in the right place in the right time to land the equivalent of a Rolling Stone feature (in this case, a job as a playwright in Burbage's famed acting troupe). It's eye-rollingly clichéd to see how tender Will's innate genius bubbles up at exactly the right moments: getting an audience with Burbage through charming his daughter Alice (Olivia DeJonge) with poetry, showing up and getting to write a play on the spot.

I mention Reign in concert with Will because, in my mind, they’re pretty similar: recasting figures from history as actors who look like models, with plenty of anachronistic-sounding music, an undercurrent of sex, and fancy costumes to make the whole thing come together. Reign, however, had one key aspect that Will, as of the pilot, simply doesn't: the excellent, scenery-chewing performance by a character actor to give the whole affair some guilty-pleasure legitimacy. Megan Follows is an indispensable part of Reign, where, as antagonist Catherine de'Medici, she comes up with about ten scheming plans per episode to protect her children and/or secure her power. Will has no such actor, meaning that the burden of entertainment rests upon the shoulders of the less-finessed younger stars. Of course, Adelaide Kane certainly improved as Mary, Queen of Scots as Reign went on, but there was plenty of campy intrigue and fun to be had in the interim, courtesy of Follows. As it stands now, I don’t relish watching more of Will until it starts to veer away from the clichés and give us a young Shakespeare worth rooting for.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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