Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, April 2010Posted on 17 April 2010
The bizarre first word of the title, and lack of narrative drive in the text, was a striking contrast to the wonderful acting from a cast headed by Patrick Stewart as William Shakespeare. This 1974 play by Edward Bond, directed by Angus Jackson, is about Shakespeare’s last days. It deals primarily with his wish to protect the income from his landholdings, and secondly with a difficulty in his relationship with his younger daughter Judith. As a piece of fiction it is based on a few facts: Shakespeare did indeed favour a proposed land development by William Combe, played here by Jason Watkins, and he did change his will shortly before his death, leaving most of his estate to his elder daughter Susanna and her husband. An impression is given that Shakespeare cut his younger daughter Judith out of his will, though in fact her inheritance had provisions to protect it from her husband Thomas Quiney, of whose behaviour Shakespeare disapproved.
There are six scenes, each interesting enough in itself, but lacking overall momentum. The one I enjoyed most was the fourth, where Ben Johnson, entertainingly played by Richard McCabe, is the life and soul of an evening of heavy drinking with Shakespeare. While Johnson is cheerful and impecunious, Shakespeare is shown as a kindly but taciturn figure, ready to pay when others cannot. One of the talents Patrick Stewart brings to the part is an ability to portray Shakespeare’s long silences while others gaily rant on about things that concern them, but are of little interest to anyone else, including the audience.
The tenor of the times is brought out in the first scene, where Michelle Tate appears as a young woman, journeying without permission to alleged relatives in another part of the country. She needs money, which Shakespeare is happy to provide, but John McEnery, as a foolish and lecherous old retainer, gets her for himself, and she is later strung up on a scaffold for breaking the law in her illicit travels. This was a time in England when people were forbidden to travel without a permit, because of perceived threats by Roman Catholics. A time of casual brutality when executions were the norm, and family members might even pull on the legs of their hanging brethren to shorten the torture — none of the modern skill of calculating the length of rope according to the weight of the body so that dropping yields instant death, rather than a beheading. It was a time of bear baiting when starving dogs were set onto a chained bear, which might be blinded as additional entertainment. The script describes all this, with Shakespeare saying, “I am stupefied by the suffering I’ve seen”. This and the side story of the old retainer being attacked and eventually shot, possibly by his son, along with men running around armed with cudgels, gives the impression of a history lesson — interesting, but lacking in dramatic tension.
The old retainer’s wife, who gently tolerates her nutty husband, was very sympathetically portrayed by Ellie Haddington, and their anger-ridden son by Alex Prince. Catherine Cusack, as Shakespeare’s daughter Judith, showed fury mingled with care towards her father, but with the two of them saying, “I hate you” to one another, I was left with the feeling that while this fiction might be partly true, it might equally well be partly false. Some commentators refer to Lear-like aspects of this play, but I don’t find it remotely on the same level as Lear. What the playwright seems to have done is use Shakespeare as a vehicle for urging the audience to think about the crudity and unfairness of early seventeenth century England. His success would be greater if the play had more energy and drive, and I’m afraid even the presence of Patrick Stewart as the Bard, and fine acting by the rest of the cast, failed to grip me, nor presumably those who left after the interval.
Performances continue to May 22 — for more details click here.