Bingo – Young Vic, until 31 March
Edward Bond tends to write exactly the sort of plays that you would imagine a British Marxist growing up in a declining post-war England to write. Heavily influenced by Brecht, Bond’s writing operates with a rigidly mechanistic quality that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Soviet factory. There is a brutalism to life in Bond that may have reached its apotheosis in Saved and its infamous scene of a baby stoned to death. Saved, his second play, cemented Bond’s legacy due to the role it played in the battle to overturn the Lord Chamberlain’s Office right to censor works for the stage.
Deliberately challenging his audience and a notoriously prickly individual to work with, Bond has fallen from the public eye and in recent years has worked outside of the mainstream. However the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, now sadly closed, staged a number of older plays alongside new work in 2010 and the Lyric Hammersmith took on Saved in 2011 to suggest that we may finally be rehabiliting ourselves towards one of our most overtly political playwrights.
The Young Vic has continued this process with Bingo; it is seemingly an astute choice, one of Bond’s most accessible plays featuring Shakespeare as its central protagonist, and the casting of Patrick Stewart, who originally played the role in the 1970’s, guaranteed to bring in an audience that might otherwise avoid such austere fare.
Shakespeare retains central to Britain’s cultural heritage and represents the country’s main claim to a true cultural genius to rank alongside Da Vinci and Mozart. Those individuals that command an international agreement of their stature are rare indeed and whenever their legacy is challenged people have a tendency to react defensively.
It is no great surprise that Bond does not look to take the easy road; this is not the Shakespeare of a bustling 16/17th century London, the playwright that shaped the medium for centuries to come. Instead Bond presents a Shakespeare that has retired from public life, who has become entangled with the local bureaucracy when he would rather be sitting alone in his garden. There is very little hint of the man who would be revered for generations.
Critical analysis of the play seems to divide down traditional class lines. Those on the left have been sympathetic to the play, whilst those on the right view it as a hatchet job by a po-faced revisionist. Bond fully intends the play to challenge assumptions and his introduction points to Shakespeare, in supporting the enclosures, having benefitted from existing societal arrangements that justified ‘prisons, workhouses, whipping, starvation […]’.
Applying Marxist arguments retrospectively is always problematic; to what extent should we judge Shakespeare for not leaping to the barricades to defend the rights of the masses?. This is Britain that continued to reverberate from the religious conflict following the Reformation and the harassment of religious sects, like the Diggers, who preached a communal philosophy was seen well into the mid-17th Century, Shakespeare is also haunted by his father’s late bankruptcy and is determined not to avoid the same fate. To have actively turned against the enclosures would have been to operate outside all reasonable norms and could have been seen as a politically subversive act by a writer that spent a career operating walking the fine line of state permissibility.
Of greater interest is the dissonance between the supporter of the enclosures, the taming of the wild and the destruction of a way of life, and the playwright who wrote of the pastoral as a wondrous, almost mystical, element that recurs throughout his play; from the romances within As You Like It until The Tempest, his majestic final play, where the magical is made explicit. .
Bond’s Shakespeare is detached from the reality of the wold. He sits alone, silent, in his garden, his only meaningful relationship with his simple-minded gardener. This is a man who finds his family unbearable, stifling his creativity, and who is able to tell them so but who cannot face returning to London and cruelty of its bear-baiting shows. The tragedy arrives through Shakespeare being intelligent enough to understand the man he has become and burden of guilt he must bear for his actions. He speaks in the rough, coarse language of the everyday but occasionally there is a flash of the mind that created Hamlet and King Lear; his description of the abhorrence he feels towards bear-baiting resonates with an emotional intensity that he will never be able to provide for his family. In the final scene of the play he hides away rather than face his family and, in a masterly addition by Stewart, winces at his daughter’s clichéd reference to ‘clutching’ her heart.
The play is not without its difficulties, always struggling to overcome its mechanical nature and is further undermined by a chronic lack of pace. A play being didactic in nature is not a problem but if so then it must contain some of the urgency that made Deborah Warner’s version of Mother Courage such a visceral experience.
The first half of the play is a slow burner that builds steadily to a powerful climax that highlights Bond’s ability to find potent imagery; working-class labourers relaxing under the still-hanging corpse acting as a reminder of their false consciousness. However the tone of the play is unbalanced by a second half that is kicked off with a firecracker of a cameo by Richard McCabe, who as Ben Jonson, is given free reign by the director, Angus Jackson, to own the stage.
His Jonson is swarthy and sweaty, bilious and ingratiating in equal measure. He is a character fabulous to watch but a nightmare to drink with. He also enters the play like a rocket-powered grenade before disappearing not to be seen again. The problem is that as soon as he exits the play reverts to a funereal pace; this is a passive Shakespeare who internalises everything and by the end of two hours the audience has experienced what it must have been like to live with him.
The fault is not with Patrick Stewart, who invests the part with what characterisation is available but there is little meat on the bones to work with. In monologue the flashes of Bond’s undoubted talent for imagery is unleashed and there is pathos as he rests in the snowy fields but when he is called to interact with others, his chronic inaction means that there is little to offer Stewart.
Some fault must lie with the director, it is a problematic play but it needn’t have taken quite such a literal approach to the staging, It has a very stylised period formality, which may be fine if the play itself has an energy to drive it forwards, but the lack of direct action requires a more inventive touch to keep the audience engaged.
One suspects that it is quite possible that none of this is of much concern to Bond, who may well feel that the audience should have to work during his plays. However if he is going to receive the reappraisal he deserves then he will need to be better served than this unfortunately dull revival.
Reviews for the Twitter Generation:
Watching a great Shakespearian actor play Shakespeare proves to be a great deal less enjoyable than watching him in one of Shakespeare’s own plays. It is still better than Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous.