Interview: Screenwriter Craig Pearce on the Unlikely Punk Rock Inspiration Behind Shakespeare Drama “Will”

By Staff · August 31, 2017

By Shanee Edwards

Ever since Downton Abbey emerged as a world-wide smash success (the show has even inspired a demand for butlers in China), historic and period dramas have become all the rage on television. Versailles, The Crown, and Taboo are just a few of the best. Now the bard himself has his own TV show simply called Will. The Script Lab recently sat down with Craig Pearce, the show’s creator; to discover what brings Shakespeare to life in 2017.Like many screenwriters, Craig Pearce started his career as an actor. His first Shakespearean role was as the Wall in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the tables have turned for Pearce in the best possible way. Instead of Pearce reciting the words of Shakespeare, “Shakespeare” is now reciting his.

Everything changed for Pearce in 1992, when he co-wrote Strictly Ballroom with Baz Luhrmann. The movie was a critical success and Pearce has been firing up Final Draft ever since. His films include Romeo + Juliet starring Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and the Oscar-winning Moulin Rouge! starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. His latest project Will, about William Shakespeare, is wildly exciting and like nothing TV has ever seen.

Similar to the mash-up style in Moulin Rouge!, where characters sing modern songs and do modern dances, Will takes its styling from the punk rock movement of the 1970s and 80s.

“Punk is really nostalgic for our modern audience now, but it’s really the most energetic thing of the modern era. It was English born and it came from the mean streets of London.”

But even more importantly, punk rock came out of anger.

“There was a lot of anger in Shakespeare’s world. He wanted to change his world.”

When we think back to Elizabethan England, most of us associate the era with the Shakespeare plays we’ve seen. Star-crossed lovers and scheming monarchs come to mind. But Pearce says the era was a lot more brutal than we might think and that London’s citizens were living in a police state.

“We have this very rose-colored vision of what Elizabethan England was like. The truth was that England was surrounded by these very hostile Catholic nations. It was trying to survive but it was also spying on and terrorizing its own citizens to try and stay in power. That was the dramatic reality and it is reflected in many of Shakespeare’s plays.”

So here’s where the punk rock vibe comes in. To Pearce, going to see one of Shakespeare’s plays was more akin to the experience of seeing The Clash or Souixie and the Banshees and a lot less like seeing the pricy Hamilton.

“In the Elizabethan times, the 3,000 seat area was crammed with people yelling and fighting and f*cking and eating and drinking. If they didn’t like a play, they would riot and burn the place down. There are historical accounts of that so you go, ‘Okay what is that like today? A rock show!’”

Pearce did plenty of research on the man behind the plays before tackling the show, but there was little to draw on.

“When I started on the project I learned there’s not anything personal that survives from Shakespeare apart from his signature on a few documents and then there’s the vast body of work. That’s both very personal and impersonal. So why try and do a fake historically accurate piece? We’re not setting out to make a documentary about Shakespeare, we’re setting out to talk about the emotional reality of the characters.”

That’s where Pearce hits the nail on the head. The three most important things in a story are: character, character and character.

After building strong characters, the show is free to draw from plenty of conflict both on the macro-level and the micro-level.

Will (Laurie Davidson) is a secret Catholic trying to hide in plain site as other Catholics are tortured and killed. Though it’s not known if Shakespeare was Catholic or Protestant, Pearce insists the torture scenes in the show aren’t gratuitous.

“I think we need to be reminded how horrible torture is because it exists in our world.”

And then there’s conflict on a medium scale with Will’s wife, Anna (Deidre Mullins). He’s left her and their three kids to pursue theater and finds romance right away with Alice Burbage (Olivia DeJonge), James Burbage’s (Colm Meany) daughter.

Will’s micro-conflict is one we can all relate to – does he have what it takes to be a great writer?

We had to ask Pearce if he agrees with the conspiracy theory that someone else, perhaps Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, or Christopher Marlowe, wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

“I think he definitely collaborated but Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and the voice is so consistent. A Marlowe play was never like a Shakespeare play.”

Despite the mystery around Shakespeare, his work and his life still inspires the world in 2017. Pearce thinks the playwright’s long-lasting fame is due to how accessible his stories and characters are to us.

“Shakespeare is a bit like Jesus – his works are a bit like the Bible. Someone could read the Bible and find justification for being a right winged violent bigot someone else could read the Bible and can find justification for being a pacifist.”

Will airs Monday nights on TNT or you can stream all the episodes here.

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