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A CurtainUp London London Review
Bingo Scenes of Money and Death

What was The Winter's Tale about? — Ben Jonson
Bingo Scenes of Money and Death
Patrick Stewart as William Shakespeare
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Edward Bond's 1974 play Bingo about the last months of William Shakespeare is set in Shakespeare's home in Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire where the Bard (Patrick Stewart), now unable to write, has to settle for an unhappy retirement. Living with his scolding daughter Judith (Catherine Cusack) and his difficult, invalid wife Anne (whom we never see) he concentrates on local politics until he gets a visit from fellow playwright Ben Jonson (Richard McCabe).

The first half of the play concentrates on Shakespeare's position as a local landowner and delivers much social history of early Stewart times. There is the desire of owners of large tracts of land to place their tenants elsewhere and to further rid their property of squatters, in order to enclose the farmland and switch its use from labour intensive agriculture to more lucrative sheep farming. Jason Watkins plays a significant local land encloser, William Combe, whom Shakespeare appears to side with in the land records and whose son he mentions in his will. At the same time we meet a young woman (Michelle Tate) who represents the poor and who is caught prostituting herself with a gardener in Shakespeare's household. There is some discussion about the application of the then Poor Laws and the burden placed on the parishes with large numbers to support and so the desirability of not taking on those from other areas. This is exactly the same situation that we have today, four hundred years later, with local social services trying to get people on benefits to go back to where they previously lived.

Following on from this information there are local riots and fire raising for which the young woman is hanged, frighteningly appearing onstage on the gibbet and smelling rancid. Shakespeare also describes in detail the brutality of bear baiting entertainment, the cruelty to the animals, dogs and bears. The description of the bear raising its paw as if to plead with the crowd is an unforgettable image. These ideas help to place Shakespeare in a context of a cruel society we were not before aware of, knowing more from his works about the rural pleasures of Arden or the comic constabulary than the terrible predicament of the poor, and more about the peremptory justice of a hanging society than the eloquent oratory of a Portia. This first half is didactic and at times deeply depressing as we learn about man's inhumanity.

The second act has a highly enjoyable first but fictional section in which Ben Jonson (Richard McCabe) comes on a visit and he and Will get drunk in the local hostelry. Ben Jonson brings news of the London theatres and players and repeatedly asks WS what he is writing. Later Shakespeare goes out where the snow is on the ground and re-enacts the blasted heath scene from Lear except it is in his own fields and it is snowy rather than windy. Shakespeare returns to his house, locks his bedroom against his alternately screaming and pleading wife and daughter, writes his will leaving his wife famously his second best bed and takes poison. Meanwhile the rebels are filling in Combe's ditches supplying water to his pastures.

Patrick Stewart calmly plays William Shakespeare in his dotage. There is little of the old man's genius on show and serenity seems to be something he repeatedly aspires to. Stewart looks right as the bald man with a small beard and clothed in dark, well made but plain Tudor costume but his ordinariness belies the genius of his written work. Maybe this is remorse as he says "Every writer writes in other men's blood - the trivial and the real - there is nothing else to write in."

Richard McCabe is a larger than life, affable, outrageous Ben Jonson and a witty highlight of the production. Catherine Cusack's organised, but inflexible Judith patiently cares for Shakespeare and is visibly upset when she finds the will favouring her sister Susanna, although it is Judith he lives with. More allusions to Lear here perhaps?

Angus Jackson's production is beautifully designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, the garden's huge box topiary arch being trimmed by John McEnery's gardener and the snow spread over the ground, with the interior of the tavern and Shakespeare's bedroom looking authentic as are the costumes. There is no seat in Chichester's Minerva Theatre which does not have a good view.

I am still not entirely clear why this play is called Bingo, a game of chance and money. Shakespeare's final words are reflective, "Was anything done?" Bond's play is one that stays with you and continues to engage your thoughts with his view of Shakespeare, not as a impecunious artist but as a wealthy landowner who seems to be deliberately keeping money and property from his wife after his death. We are told of the bankruptcy of Shakespeare's father, the Stratford glover in this play.

Although Edward Bond's Bingo is criticising Shakespeare for his lack of principle in tackling issues of poverty and oppression, Bond himself has never shied away from controversy putting his ideals above popularity and wealth. After writing about theatrical censorship last week with the London productions of Hair (review to be posted shortly) and Behud, I am reminded that Edward Bond's 1968 play Early Morning was the very last to be banned by the Lord Chamberlain.

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Bingo Scenes of Money and Death
Written by Edward Bond
Directed by Angus Jackson

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Richard McCabe, Jason Watkins, Catherine Cusack
With: John McEnery, Michelle Tate, Ellie Haddington, Alex Price, Joanne Howarth, Kieron Jecchinis, Matthew Needham
Design: Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting: Tim Mitchell
Sound: Jonathan Suffolk
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 01243 781312
Booking at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Old Vic until 22nd May 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd April 2010 performance at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 6AP (Rail: Chichester, under two hours from London by rail)

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