Ye gods. Seldom can the bland programme line "Other parts played by members of the company" have concealed such japes. In Peter Barnes's RSC-commissioned Jubilee, the "other parts" include a trio of RSC directors – Hall, Hands and Nunn – and a trio of playwrights – Shakespeare, Jonson and Barnes himself. The impersonations (of those living, at any rate) are wickedly sharp, but go to the heart of the fibrous tangle that is the author's attitude towards the Bard, towards this play, and perhaps even towards theatre itself.
Barnes is not a great Shakespeare fan. As director Gregory Doran no doubt knew, approaching him to write a play about the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee (at which not a word of Shakespeare was spoken), organised by David Garrick at the request of the burghers of Stratford as a naked exercise in geographical and personal branding, was bound to result in a hail of darts aimed at the Shakespeare industry past and present. It would involve the deliberately crass gags which are a Barnes staple (one line, "I can do with all the ado I can get", is even recycled from the playwright's own programme notes to his previous play, Dreaming), and would spare the sensibilities of neither the intended targets, a wide fallout zone around them nor the audience.
So far, so fine. The depiction of Garrick's attempt to link himself with Shakespeare in popular consciousness (in which, even though the Jubilee itself was a disaster, he eminently succeeded), and of a climate in which everyone from the actor-manager to the Stratford innkeepers are out for what they can get is vigorous and in places even Jonsonian. Nicholas Woodeson, Kelly Hunter and David Collings as Garrick, his wife and his assistant and brother play things as straight as possible in the circumstances whilst the mad-scientist brew of a play fizzes and smokes all around them.
However, Barnes may enjoy lampooning his subject, but he palpably does not like having to write about it in the first place. His whole vexed relationship with theatre spurts through every pore of this play: he seems to hate himself for being part of such a commercialisation of culture even more than he hates the audience for consuming it as a commodity, and he demonstrates this at some length and in a variety of disparate and clashing modes of presentation. The one thing at which he is consummately successful is communicating the pain of his perceived position. This is painful stuff, not in the sense of being dreadful (although some of it is, to be sure, and much of that written by Garrick rather than Barnes) but in the sense that it hurts to be part of this theatrical transaction. Where, say, Howard Barker inveighs against the moral deficits of the world at large, Barnes is railing and rambling into the cultural bathroom mirror. There's no need for us to watch.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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