Writer: Ben Jonson
Directors: Blanche McIntyre
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
In the days before formal leisure time became a standard part of working life, feast days and festivals were the only place for people to celebrate and London’s many fairs and infamous pleasure gardens provided the opportunity for all kinds of misdeeds. Ben Jonson used the Smithfield-based Bartholomew Fair as the location for his 1614 patchwork comedy of the same name which director Balance McIntyre has spent 20-years trying to stage and her new version opens at the tiny Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Long forgotten, revivals of Bartholomew Fair have become more frequent in the last century, but it remains one of Jonson’s least effective scripts and this over-egged production at The Globe does little to rescue its reputation. Set on a single day, with over 30 characters and five Acts it is an extended character study of working-class life, a pre-Hogarthian depiction of innocence corrupted and chaotic encounters, but without the narrative drive that shaped Jonson’s other work.
It’s a play you need to watch with the synopsis close to hand and opens with Littlewit drawing up a marriage licence for the wealthy Bartholomew Cokes before taking his pregnant wife and mother-in-law to the titular fair where Littlewit’s puppet show will be performed. Cokes, his friends and servants follow and there they become embroiled with stallholders, thieves and pimps who create plenty of mischief as the well-to-do are outsmarted, while subplots involving an undercover Justice of the Peace, sundry schemes and plenty of revelry follow.
Jonson’s play is full of broad characterisation which McIntyre’s production has relocated to a pseudo-modern setting, stripping the Sam Wanamaker Theatre of its candles and many decorative Jacobean stylings. Instead, designer Ti Green has placed mirrors around the space, while Prema Mehta’s lighting tries to create a feel of open space, yet the result is a more hipsterish bar and 90s disco. While the gore of Smithfield is nicely evoked with plenty of hanging pigs and a blood-splattered floor, there is little ambience, no sense of the wider hubbub of the fair beyond.
Jonson has mixed the classes completely and the play is overwhelmingly full of life and incident, McIntyre tries to reflect the kaleidoscopic nature of London with its multiracial, multinational population, but with 12 actors, some playing as many as three or four roles each these often become little more than caricatures that compete with one another for attention rather than cohere as the play’s clarity is lost in the melee of often unfathomable incident. There’s lots of gender-swapping, characters disguising themselves as each other and multiple climactic encounters, but the overall effect is fragmented and disconnected with no one to root for and no clear path through the story.
Forbes Masson as Cokes’ servant is inexplicably furious for most of the play but brings an energy to the role that fires-up the production whenever he’s on stage, while Joshua Lacey as Littlewit and a scheming pickpocket develops a great chemistry with Boadicea Ricketts as Win Littlewit and the singer Nightingale. Explaining his disguises to the audience, Dickon Tyrrell’s Justice Overdo almost morphs into Rene from Allo Allo, while Jenna Augen’s American Preacher feels out of kilter even with her other performance as Ursula, a grotesque keeper of the pig stall.
Thankfully it all ends with a puppet show performed entirely by Richard Katz as stall-holder Leatherhead charting the story of Hero and Lysander which makes perfect sense from start to finish and turns out to be a comedy highlight of an otherwise underwhelming show. Jonson’s play delights in what was then a rare mixing of the social classes, but the Globe’s new production has overcomplicated an already intricate plot, jettisoning both clarity and impetus for comic clichés. This won’t convince you that the play is a forgotten classic and it may well be another 20-years before we see it again.
Runs Until: 12 October 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner