Shakespeare has retired and his theatre lies in ruins. Gone are the streets of London filth, drunken applause and royal favour. Instead, he sits in Stratford-upon-Avon among the birdsong and peasants, reluctant to face the responsibility he owes to his wife and daughter, and ensconced in a creeping nihilism and world-weary despair. As gluttonous capitalists provoke civil dissent among the peasants, Shakespeare begins to shoulder the weight of his mortality. After a life of enlightenment and artistic eloquence, William is left with one last question: “Was anything done?”
Written by Edward Bond in 1974 and originally presented in the Northcott Theatre, Devon, Angus Jackson delivers a beautiful, earthy but suffocating revival. With Robert Innes Hopkins’s symbolic use of the revolve, the play unfurls as the seasons do. Beginning in spring and ending in winter, peasants change the set through the tilling of soil or a spritzing of snow, making for some beautiful stagecraft. Credit must also be given to Stephen Warbeck’s simple Gamelan arrangements which give the space humility and the play a chance to breathe.
Lead by Patrick Stewart, the actors are impeccably cast and without a weakness. Stewart’s Shakespeare slopes across the stage like an old, arthritic hound; quiet, diminutive and brooding with frustrated barks of anger that fail to scare the wolves away. Matthew Marsh has a wonderful presence as the greedy and sinister Mr Combe; bursting from his breaches and licking his lips, he surveys the stage as one might a buffet, playing with his food before tucking in. John McEnery and Michelle Tate give very tender, funny performances as a brain damaged gardener and a pyromaniacal prostitute, and special congratulations must go to Ellie Haddington as the Old Woman/Housekeeper who brought such warmth and humanity to the bleakest corners of the play.
Though Edward Bond’s dialogue assaults the audience with waves of anxiety, the piece is not all hopeless. “God made the elements but we inflict them on each other.” This is not a play about the world as a meaningless void, but about human interaction integrity and ideological resolve. Though Shakespeare has sought truth through his art, he has allowed himself to be kept and bought by a malicious, capitalist system, a system he had chances to avoid. Full of questions and rarely attempting an answer, this is a finely produced play that leaves you thinking.
Bingo is playing at the Young Vic until 31 March 2012. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.