Poster of Bartholomew Fair

August 26, 2019, by Peter Kirwan

Bartholomew Fair (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Please note – this review is of a preview performance.

The sprawling Bartholomew Fair is an enormous play, a cast of seemingly thousands jostling shoulders in one of London’s most notorious fairs. Hosting it in the relatively bijou Sam Wanamaker was a bold choice, but Blanche McIntyre (with designer Ti Green) transformed it to maximise the space, with flooring built out over the seats in the pit and reflective mirrors around all the walls, opening out the room to create a level space that reflected the characters and all their vices – and, implicitly, all of ours – back at each other. Given the extensive doubling among the twelve characters, repeatedly echoing the bodies of the fair’s denizens and patrons in one another, and the modern dress that reflected contemporary London back at itself (and only two days after St Bartholomew’s Day, too), the production achieved the difficult task of making Jonson’s complex play feel contemporary.

With white drapes hung over the tiring house and the house lights up, the production began as a seeming work-in-progress. A technician (Dickon Tyrrell) was shoved out to make an announcement about an actor running late, and then delivered the Induction in a lovely combination of contemporary and early modern prose, apologising for the play and offering his own opinion, before an earnest Scrivener (Hedydd Dylan) and a no-nonsense prompter (Anne Odeke) kicked him out to introduce the play properly, while also introducing the contract with the audience that required we accept it in good part and judge only for ourselves. The faux-amateurishness segued nicely later into the set-up of the fair itself.

In the modern London of Act 1, Littlewit (Joshua Lacey) was a spiv with toothbrush moustache and Scandi furniture, wheeling and dealing out of his apartment while hosting his in-laws and visitors. The undercurrent of unpleasantness that pervaded the production was introduced early, as the visiting Quarlous (Jude Owusu) was surprisingly aggressive in his attempts to kiss the heavily pregnant Win Littlewit (Boadicea Ricketts); a distraught Win looked accusingly at her only slightly abashed husband, while Littlewit and Quarlous bumped fists. The contrast between the blunt Quarlous and the earnest Winwife (Dylan again) set up their later conflict, but the particular fun was the introduction of the bloated Zeal-of-the-Land Busy (Jenna Augen). Clad in a fat suit and bow tie, Busy was a hectoring American preacher, clutching Bible and always ready with a sermon that Win’s mother Dame Purecraft (Anita Reynolds) seemed to hang upon. This bloated version of Busy, helped by a cut-down script, showed little hesitation in talking himself into going to the fair after a little persuasion from Littlewit, Win and Dame Purecraft, leading the way boldly.

And then, the fair. The white drapes that had covered the tiring house of the Sam Wanamaker were whipped away  to reveal a number of pigs hanging from the rafters, and Leatherhead (Richard Katz) pulled out a control device to bring down a gantry full of fairground prizes. With a live band intermittently on stage, the balladeer Nightingale (Ricketts again) singing gorgeously, Joan Trash (Odeke) selling gingerbread, and Ursula (Augen) stomping out in bright pink to rail against her attendants and the world, the fair quickly set up the chaotic atmosphere of the fair. With the relatively small cast and the small-scale space (not helped by a half-full house), the production never quite attained the scale of buzz and movement that the play itself seems to set up, but this wasn’t for lack of the cast trying. The following four acts were a dizzying display of actor skill, especially in the lightning-fast costume changes that saw actors often reappearing as two or even three characters within the same scene, each character clearly delineated and making perfect sense of this complex play.

At the heart of the fair’s buzz was Justice Overdo (Tyrrell), speaking over a bushy moustache and establishing an intimate relationship with the audience in complete ignorance of the scale of his ridiculousness. Wearing a sandwich board announcing that things were going to get worse before they got better, Justice Overdo promised to watch but instead leapt instantly to erroneous judgements and hectored people who had no interest in listening to him. His po-facedness contrasted immediately with the naive but winsome enthusiasm of Bartholomew Cokes (Zach Wyatt) for everything he came across. By the time he entered the fair, Cokes had already won an enormous Pikachu, carried by the cantankerous Wasp (Forbes Masson); Wasp used the Pikachu to beat Justice Overdo with abandon, screaming for his Pikachu when it was momentarily taken from him.

The characters of the fair were finely converted into modern versions. Nightingale was a dreadlocked busker with a ukulele, selling CDs out of her guitar case; Edgworth (Lacey) wore smart suit and hat, instantly winning Overdo to his side even as he elegantly lifted Cokes’s wallet and handkerchief; Knockem (Bryony Hannah) was an Irish-accented petty crook in a polo shirt and jeans who had a surprisingly nasty streak; and Whit (Reynolds) was a rudeboy in whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt. Money changed hands among the folk of the fair in a series of intricate exchanges, most of it ending up in Ursula’s hands, her hold over the others absolute. While there was laughter, most of it came from the customers, especially Cokes in his pastel-coloured clothes, waving his fat wallets around with gay abandon; the folk of the fair were constantly circling and looking for their chance to make their fortune. In a particularly nicely choreographed sequence, Cokes laid down twenties in a trail and put his wallet prominently on the floor while Nightingale sang, the two working to lure the pickpocket out; only when Cokes let down his guard did Edgworth emerge to dance with them, delicately picking Cokes’s pocket as they twirled.

The production was at its most fun in the chaotic scenes that captured some of the large-scale ensemble energy of the play. When Busy, Overdo and Wasp were all arrested and handcuffed to a railing in the pit, the two police officers (Wyatt and Dylan) got to indulge in some lovely double-take slapstick as the prisoners escaped from apparently under their noses. Wasp flailed at everyone he met, looking especially put out when he tried to break a plastic beer bottle over someone’s head. Cokes gradually lost all of his possessions, ending up in only his shorts. Trouble-All the madman (Katz), reimagined for this production as an officious, Dogberry-esque security guard, rambled on and on about Justice Overdo’s warrant, and became a figure of interest for several of the fair’s visitors. And Hannah’s hilarious Russian bride Grace Wellborn, marching around the fair in sunglasses and perma-scowl, enjoyed the power she wielded over the two men, Quarlous and Winwife, who ended up brawling messily over her. The space of the Wanamaker was used for all its entrances, characters spilling out over railings and in all directions over the stage to give a sense of motion.

The production, however, took a disappointingly ugly turn in the subplot of Win and Mrs Overdo (Odeke) being tempted into prostitution by Ursula and her lackeys. In the play, Knockem and Whit convince Win that ‘ladies’ don’t have to worry about virtue, and indeed that it’s fashionable to cuckold husbands. Here, the scene was converted into date rape, with the two women’s drinks being spiked, and the conversation happening as Win drifted into unconsciousness. Even worse, Mrs Overdo was found fleeing in tears from Punk Alice (Owusu) and collapsing into a corner, the drugs given to her while she was distraught. When the two women were next seen, they were being carried out semi-conscious and laid on benches before the puppet show, where Edgworth spent the play running his hands over the unconscious Win. In attempting to find a modern analogue for the sleaziness of this scene, McIntrye certainly succeeded; the problem was that it removed all agency for the two women, offered gratuitous scenes of non-consensual sexual activity, and then offered no critique of this whatsoever. While it was certainly played for its ugliness, the jollity of the final jig undercut any lasting discomfort that the audience or characters were supposed to feel.

The puppet show itself was a tour de force for Katz as Leatherhead, performing the play with four puppets on sticks in a new, modern rhyming text filled with double entendres, asides, and plenty of gratuitous puppet violence. I couldn’t see the puppets clearly enough, but I think that Hero and Leander were meant to evoke Grace and Cokes, with Damon and Pythias rough caricatures of Winwife and Quarlous; the story of Leander chasing Hero, and Damon and Pythias fighting over her thus becoming a retelling of that plot. What was clear was that the puppet of learned Dionysus had the same busy moustache as Justice Overdo, and the puppet’s showdown debate with a hectoring Busy was a great deal of fun, especially as Busy finally gave up and called for the rest of the play; the ongoing sexual assault of Win by Edgworth downstage, however, made it hard to enjoy this scene.

Justice Overdo’s revelation of himself, full of self-confidence, was effectively undermined by Mrs Overdo vomiting violently over the stage, an action that seemed to bring the whole play momentarily to a standstill. And it was in this standstill that Quarlous was able to step forward and take over the explanation of everything that had happened, leaving Overdo abashed, everyone else subdued, and the stage quiet in a surprisingly severe victory for Quarlous. The cast took their time wandering offstage to Overdo’s house, many still bickering, in an ending that seemed to want to allow some of the horrors of the fair to be acknowledged while also keeping the sense of comedy. And everyone returned for a raucous final conga, pulling up members of the audience (myself included) to dance around the stage, with all the cast wearing items of all of their characters’ costumes for the curtain call. It was messy – rather like the fair itself – but a hot one, and if it left its darker edges unsatisfactorily addressed, it did a fine job of evoking the play’s ambiguities.

Posted in Theatre review