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April 26, 2010

No good even if you were to agree with its politics: Richard D. North on Edward Bond's Bingo at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Posted by Richard D. North

Edward Bond's Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
15 April - 22 May 2010

This clapped-out 1974 socialist drama sulked and shouted its way into the Minerva, one of the best theatre spaces in the country, and after a couple of hours it lay panting and plainly not well, getting what I thought was a polite reception. (Michael Billington liked it in this morning's Guardian and that might be a good place to begin for a different take.)

Patrick Stewart, who plays the lead, Shakespeare, told the Chichester Observer that this project was at least partly his own idea. He said he likes Bond's politics (Leveller-cum-Marxist), and wanted to reprise a role he first tried 28 years ago when he was too young to do it quite right.

I don't know why Chichester Festival Theatre decided it would be neat to redo Bingo, though I imagine they thought it would chime with their recent triumph with ENRON (coming back to Chichester this autumn) and with their forthcoming Pygmalion and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (as rendered by Howard Brenton).

Obviously, I come at things from an anti-socialist point of view. The premise of Bingo is not my cup of tea. I don't even see that it parallels our own hiatus in capitalism. But here it is anyway. Shakespeare is old, tired, gloomy and can't write. He's become interested in securing the future for his wife and daughter, both of whom he dislikes but with whom he shares houseroom. A bit Lear, then.

He depends on owning the rental income of some land which is farmed by local tenants. William Combe (Jason Watkins), a local commercial bigwig and magistrate, intends to smash that old system and impose a new "improved" and enclosed farming which will trample on the old informal way of things and deprive Shakespeare of his income. Seeking to neutralise Shakespeare's opposition (which, given his knack for propaganda, might have been powerful), the capitalist promises to indemnify Shakespeare against loss. Shakespeare feels that this is only his due, so he's a bit Shylock already. Anyway, he accepts the deal and then is plunged into deeper self-absorption of a vaguely Hamlet sort.

To be fair to Bond, we are made aware that the capitalist is likely, in the long run, to be rather good for the local economy and for food production. Combe is given some good real-world things to say. Bond reminds us that it is only in the here and now, and amongst the present rather pleasant peasantry that there will be suffering.

Indeed, there is obviously a fabulous play to be had here. Unfortunately, Bond's Shakespeare is a windbag who is maudlin and pathetic. As with the Tolstoy of the recent film, The Last Station, you want to kick the old geezer. Patrick Stewart may have volunteered to compound this by assuming that Shakespeare would have been, well, Shakespearean in an actorly sort of way. Even in decline, I hope the old boy might have been at least a bit Stoppardian. I could have done with a bit more self-awareness and a bit less solipsism.

In case things get quiet, there is a local hothead puritan who spouts yet more drivel but at vein-bursting intensity. Oh, and there's a subplot about a young vagrant girl who sells her body to Shakespeare's gardener who is the brain-damaged husband of the playwright's housekeeper (who, played by Ellie Haddington, is about the only fully-rounded person in the whole event).

The second half opens with a raddled Ben Jonson (Richard McCabe) and his jokes and edginess are welcome for quite a while until he, too, becomes, wearisome. The occasional laugh comes clunking by, as in the snowball fight amongst cries of: "A hit, a hit", in which the absence of a punchline is palpable.

For the feminists, Shakespeare's daughter is a rights-ridden anachronism who is so upset by the gardener's whore's degradation that she gives the girl up to the authorities (in the shape of the capitalist, naturally). Again to be fair to Bond, Shakespeare's daughter is a nasty piece of work (shades of Goneril and Regan), and a right-on bore. Even so, one of the mysteries of the play is how this knackered Shakespeare summons up the energy to hate his daughter quite so much. Potent dislike seems more plausible.

The play is presumably intended as a meditation on the ghastly price nice - and perhaps especially nice artistic - people have to pay to get along in the world. But only a lefty feels that Shakespeare ought especially to feel this pinch, or that only a nervous breakdown or some such would explain how a great writer would succumb to the iniquities of capitalism. I would rather stress that the possession of a conscience is a great inconvenience and found, I am pleased to say, very widely and rather indiscriminately scattered throughout the population. Bond's Shakespeare has a commonplace dilemma, and a commonplace response to it. Why would we want to be there? On the upside, the staging's minimalist but witty. Balance that though: the cast speak Mummerset throughout, so we didn't even get our deserved dollop of Ambridge.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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