By Edward Bond
Directed by Angus Jackson
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Tuesday 27th April 2010
This play is just tolerable, thanks to the second half opening scene in the tavern, with Ben Jonson and Will getting totally blotto, and giving us most of the play’s sparse jokes in one chunk. This was a very good production, mind you, and the performances were all splendid, but Edward Bond can be so dreary. I suppose he feels he has something to say about life, or in this case about money and death, but he overestimates his abilities in my view.
I saw this one on my own for once, as Steve, bless him, had come down with a bad cold and couldn’t stop coughing. The performance was the quieter, apart from a mobile going off during the closing stages! It’s strange not to have our usual discussion afterwards, but as we’ve booked again for this one he’ll have a chance to catch up later. I’ll be interested to see how the performance changes in that time.
The set was entertaining in itself. The first scenes are set in the garden of New House, Shakespeare’s retirement place in the country. There were large hedges at the back with a central opening, symmetrical beds, indicated by woodchip mulch, on either side, and also at the front. The stage had angled corners on two levels and was cut away to provide triangular steps at the front and side. There was a gate front right corner, and a bench back left.
For the rest of the first half, there was an unspecified location. The hedges were on a revolve, and on the other side were bricks, which were now at the back. In front of them was a wooden pillar, and the poor Young Woman was set up there, now dead. She did at least have a wooden headrest to help her stay still. The gate and bench were removed, and the woodchip scattered across the stage. I thought it might be a barn at first, but the gallows with grass at the base suggested an outdoor scene.
The second half starts in the tavern, and the front of the revolve now has walls either side and a fireplace in the middle, thrust forward. There were two tables and assorted stools, Ben and Will at the one to the right. For the next scene, outside in the snow, the revolve turned to give us an open space – don’t remember what was at the back – and a pile of fake snow which was swept vigorously forward to cover the stage (and the feet of the folk in the front row). Simple and effective.
The final scene is set in Will’s bedroom, so it took a minute or two to set up. The walls are back, but this time with a sturdy-looking door between them. There’s a bed to the left, an upright chair to the right, and a small, very small writing desk in front, covered in papers.
The story covers Shakespeare’s last months in Stratford, and brings in the enclosures and the hardships facing the poor at that time. Shakespeare is approached by William Coombe to agree to the common land being enclosed, and eventually agrees to that provided his rents are guaranteed. A young woman wanders into their lives, who shows us the restrictions on movement between parishes. There are protests against the enclosures, and in the meantime, Will is in a kind of depression as he toils towards death. He doesn’t get on with his family, loathes them in fact, so living in Stratford is torture for him, though he no longer wants to be in London. Frankly, just about everyone is miserable.
Bond is a political writer, so there’s a bit of drum-banging going on, but on the whole I’d have to agree with Patrick Stewart’s comment at the post-show that this was one area where Bond was scrupulously balanced. It is, after all, the area he’s most interested in, and he does understand the other points of view, at least well enough to present them fairly. I’d also agree that it’s the only area that’s balanced. I was very aware that many of the characters simply don’t communicate with each other, and while that’s certainly a valid situation to demonstrate and explore on stage, it doesn’t necessarily work if the lack of communication extends to the audience as well. Surely Judith could have been given more opportunity to express her feelings about her absentee father? Surely she could have made better points about his lack of care towards his family? There was enough to hint at the past injuries, on both sides, but I never felt the personal was anything more than a side issue for Bond.
Unfortunately, the political side also felt underwritten. One of the main protesters, Son, son of Old Woman and Old Man, Will’s servants (God, these names are dreadful!) was so caught up in religious rhetoric, and spoke with such a strong accent that I lost most of his lines. I got the anger, but the arguments against enclosure were decidedly lacking. In fact, the best argument against was the wonderfully sleazy performance by Jason Watkins as William Coombe, the main mover in the land grab campaign. I will just say that the accents were all fine, as far as I could tell, and if I’d remembered, I would have liked to ask about them during the post-show, but they did make it hard to follow the dialogue at times.
So it wasn’t the greatest evening, but the time did pass fairly quickly, and we had some laughs along the way.
© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me