I’ve always had this nagging feeling I would not have liked Shakespeare much had I met him.
The mind that could create a Hamlet, an Othello and a Lear, well, was never going to be much of a bundle of laughs.
The Shakespeare we meet in Edward Bond’s Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death is the great author in his final year: bitter, angry, in despair. No, not much fun around the dinner table.
Having retired from London to Warwickshire, writing no more, entombed in the home he bought with the fortune from his works, Shakespeare is at odds with his family and drawn into a war of words and finally deeds between his fellow land owners and the Stratford poor.
It doesn’t make for much fun, even though there are some poignant moments of comedy; the beautifully crafted drunken scene at a local inn where he is the reluctant drinking partner of a morbid Ben Jonson being the best example.
Hollywood’s Patrick Stewart plays Shakespeare and he commands the stage. Spitting against the world he now inhabits, angry at its cruelty and hopelessness, Stewart’s Bard shows some glimpses of his poetic greatness as he rails against humanity. Prostrate in the snow he seemingly attacks the bitterness of his loveless life and the human condition.
It wouldn’t be Shakespeare without a fool. Here it is the gardener, described simply as Old Man, and played to perfection by John McEnery. Old Man is a simpleton abroad in a world that flogs young women for leaving their village without permission.
Designer Robert Innes Hopkins creates a simple, bleak, yet effective stage to underscore an England plagued by poverty, injustice and plague itself. The execution scene is shocking in its every-dayness.
If this sounds like a bleak experience, then to some extent it is. The humour is sparse and the action slow. And Bond seems to point again to the question of how such a practical, dispassionate man could really be history’s greatest author. But Bingo is worth the journey towards the great man’s end, with the audience to decide whether it is tragedy or comic farce.
Bingo is the first production of this year’s Chichester Festival that runs until September.