Writer: Edward Bond
Director: Angus Jackson
Reviewer: Frank McKenna
Patrick Stewart as William Shakespeare safe guarding his financial future at the expense of his tenant farmers may not initially seem like an ideal evening out. Angus Jackson’s revival of Edward Bond’s 1974 play opens the Festival 2010 season in Chichester.
The play, set in the seventeenth century, has several parallel plots – Shakespeare’s internal struggle to plan for his retirement, the open greed of the wealthy landowner in the form of William Combe and the struggle of the down trodden common people to make ends meet. Combe, a Stratford politician, encloses the common land so it cannot be farmed by local people. Shakespeare supports Combe in exchange for the security of his own land..
The intimate setting of the Minerva theatre makes the audience feel part of the production. The set, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, is cleverly multi-faceted and is used to great effect to direct the audience through the seasons of the play with imaginiative uses of the space and props. This production is authentic with it’s seventeenth century costumes.
Patrick Stewart has appeared in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (as Malvolio) and Macbeth (in the title rôle) in Chichester before. Now he plays the writer himself. He sparkles everytime he is on stage – but that could be the light reflecting on the earring in his left ear. Lack of dialogue in sections meant that he looked restrained in his performance. There were a few star set pieces where his skill and on stage presence shone – especially the bear baiting speech. He is convincly troubled when he realises the impact of his decision and the effect it has on local people.
There are fine supporting performances. The politically driven powerful landowner William Combe played by Jason Watkins is forcefully manipilative. John McEnery is touching and childlike as Shakespeare’s gardener. Ellie Haddington as The Old Man’s Wife and Shakespeare’s housekeeper is gentle and motherly. Michelle Tate as the displaced young beggar woman whose end is graphically depicted is realistic and persuasive. Catherine Cusack as Shakespeare’s puritanical and selfish daughter Judith is suitably mean and convincing. Richard McCabe as Ben Jonson lightens the atmosphere and brings some welcome comedy to the piece.
This production is a slow burner but the pace is picked up in the second act and The local farmers all speak in broad dialect which at times was difficult to follow. The issues of the seventeenth century – was money more important than the welfare of those less fortunate ?- were relevent in the 1970’s when Bond wrote this and they remain relevent today. This piece makes for a thought provoking evening out.