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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
BINGO
at Minerva Theatre, Chichester

SHAKESPEARE'S LAST DAYS
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Patrick Stewart/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

How the game of bingo relates to the title of Edward Bond’s 1973 play about the last days of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon is anyone’s guess, though “full house” (a bingo term) certainly applies to the sell-out success of Patrick Stewart in Chichester’s smaller house, a success similar to that of John Gielgud at the Royal Court in the London premiere in 1974 (the play had first been staged in the Northcott Theatre, Exeter, in the South West of England, with the late Bob Peck as the bard).

Stewart has returned in triumph to his Shakespearean stage roots in recent seasons, delivering powerful performances as Prospero, Antony and Claudius with the RSC, and originating his ferocious, Stalinist Macbeth in this same small Chichester venue as well as his bumptious Edwardian Malvolio (so tangled up in his yellow garters that he had to bunny-hop, hilariously, from the stage) in the main arena.

So, to play the author in a drama – subtitled “Scenes of Money and Death” – that sets out to diminish him as a dithering landowner, turning a blind eye to the social evils caused by the enclosures on his doorstep, and in which he has participated, even passively, might have looked like a deed of either ingratitude, or revenge, or both.

In fact, Stewart helped out artistic director Jonathan Church, who had a sudden gap in his schedule, by suggesting he return to a role he first played in 1977, in a small-scale modern dress production by Howard Davies in Stratford and London. He was much more enigmatic and irascible back then.

Stewart’s Shakespeare is now a bald, slow-moving, thoughtful senior in Jacobean costume, helplessly adrift in a dream state between life and death, impervious to the knocking of his wife on his bedroom door, driving his daughter Judith (a superb study in caring exasperation by Catherine Cusack) to her wits’ end, quietly conspiring in the land carve-up – he owned a hundred acres and many rentals – supervised by a ruthless local entrepreneur, William Combe (an explosively impatient Jason Watkins).

Bond is a lost, if not forgotten, figure in our theatrical landscape, scornful of the major companies and the West End, handing his latest apocalyptic, dystopian dramas to student groups and amateurs. Bingo stands at the crux of his career, mixing the striking severity of his early work with the pseudo-Brechtian moralising of his later. But he remains a great writer and this, I believe, is a great play about artistic paralysis.

The six scenes are beautifully constructed, and beautifully laid out by director Angus Jackson and designer Robert Innes Hopkins, moving from the high hedge of New Place, where his gardener (John McEnery) has sex with a gypsy traveler (Michelle Tate), to the paneled hostelry where Shakespeare entertains Richard McCabe’s blustery, drunken, hilarious Ben Jonson: “What are you writing? ...What was The Winter’s Tale about?”

The gypsy girl is thrown out, becomes involved in a barn-burning and is executed, her corpse displayed on a gibbet while Shakespeare recounts the barbarity of bear-baiting before the queen. He retreats to the snow-covered fields, where he literally writhes in anguish and regret, and finally his bedroom. He kills himself. It’s all he has left to do, and all he can manage.

 

 


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