Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 23 April, 2010

This production is a fine emblem of the financial and artistic achievement of Jonathan Church since he took over the artistic directorship of Chichester. When he arrived in 2006, the Festival theatre and its Minerva studio needed to play to more than healthy houses simply to survive that season; Church turned the finances around and moreover managed to combine in his programming the more traditional summer entertainment values of the theatre and its principal constituency with a vein of adventurousness and challenge. Rupert Goold’s lauded productions of Enron and Macbeth both began in the Minerva, and now Patrick Stewart, who played the title role in the latter, returns under Angus Jackson’s direction to portray Shakespeare in what may be the most un-Chichester offering yet.
Edward Bond’s brutal, astringent 1973 Marxist fable depicts not Shakespeare the playwright, but rather the retired Warwickshire gentleman, living off the rents of the smallholdings he owns and threatened when other local landowners resolve to enclose the common lands. In this respect, his artistic achievements (which are both hymned and excoriated by Ben Jonson in a drunken scene in Act Two) are no more relevant to the workings of the world than the bingo of the title. Since the laws in place at the time are seen to condemn a young woman to repeated whipping and ultimately hanging simply for trying to move where she might make a living, material prosperity and legal security seem almost as much of a lottery.
Bond writes in a deliberately lapidary style: characters do not so much speak to one another as pronounce upon matters, and Shakespeare himself says no more than a handful of words at a time until his final death-bed scene, in which he repeatedly demands, “Was anything done?”, encapsulating his well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual artistic temperament in such a cruel economic world. Stewart is the still point at the centre of the play, quietly racked whilst others around him rail: Catherine Cusack as his daughter Judith, Richard McCabe as Jonson, Jason Watkins as the driving force behind the enclosure, Alex Price as a protester against it. It is unremittingly strong stuff, but as is so often the case its very unremittingness diminishes its impact. We, like the young woman, can take only so much.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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