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Bartholomew Fair

Ben Jonson
Shakespeare's Globe
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe
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Blanche McIntyre has, apparently, itched for some time to direct Ben Jonson’s baggy, farcical five-act city comedy Bartholomew Fair, but why put it in the intimate, usually only candlelit, Jacobean Sam Wanamaker Playhouse when it is surely more suited to the open Globe stage next door?

McIntyre’s production is brightly lit with electric lights (wasn't this a contentious point during Emma Rice’s reign as artistic director?—I stifle a laugh when a fake candle chandelier descends from the flies) and has surround mirrors to expand the constraining space.

Richard Eyre had the vast Olivier stage with its revolve but still was not happy with his 1988 production. Any open-air theatre (Regent’s Park, where it was done in 1987) would better serve the play’s convoluted intersecting plots and give its thirty named characters, here played by twelve actors, room to breath.

McIntyre has taken on quite a task with, it seems, her hands tied behind her back. And she has made the best of a tricky job, updating it to the consumerist present (selfies, money transfers by touching phones, a large stuffed Pikachu, design by Ti Green), but the sightlines are appalling. From my seat in the upper gallery on the right-hand side of the centre block, frustratingly, I see only half or maybe two thirds of the action, much of it taking place on a stage thrust into the pit underneath the gallery and out of my view.

The mirrors don't help much. There’s so much to take in that not being able to see is a huge impediment. The actors, doubling and tripling roles in some cases, intermingle with the crowd in the pit and race up to the upper level, but here is yet another problem: the hanging gantry full of the fair’s bric-a-brac obscures them here too.

Listening is the alternative option, and didn't people go to ‘hear’ a play (lots of colourful wordplay) rather than ‘see’ it in Shakespeare and Jonson’s time, but sometimes the dialogue does get lost in my restricted view… At times, I can’t see who is being addressed. Not ideal… At least the excellently apposite puppet-show in the directly opposite minstrel gallery is visible.

But visibility is crucial if one is to follow the complicated plot—even the programme synopsis covers two pages. If you’ve never seen or read the play, I recommend reading the synopsis in advance and again in the interval to fix a who’s who in your head. The names take some remembering: Winwife, Littlewit and Win Littlewit (Win short for Win-the-Fight not Winifred) easily confused.

So, a bawdy scenario with its various double-dealing corrupt sets, both the coke-snorting, scheming, louche TOWIE arrivistes and the fair’s underclass of traders, pimps, pickpockets in Bartholomew Fair, which took place on 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day, in the Smithfield area. And it lasted from the twelfth century to the nineteenth when the Victorians shut it down for “encouraging debauchery”.

There’s a stolen wedding licence, a fake pregnancy, JP Overdo (a brilliant Dickon Tyrrell) in disguise as a sandwich board man (“It’s going to get worse” on one side of the board, “before it gets better” on the other) trying to winkle out the “enormities” being done on site, only to find his wife there. There’s an evangelical American preacher Zeal-of-the-Land, greasy pork butcher Ursula (both in fat suits, both played by Jenna Augen), a shady rich Russian (!) Grace Wellborn (Bryony Hannah also the rascally horse dealer Knockem) trying to chose between Ned Winwife (Hedydd Dylan, also Scrivener and Bristle) and Tom Quarlous (Jude Owusu who makes a gorgeous Punk Alice in black leather) as a suitable husband.

And then there’s the rich widow Dame Purecraft (Anita Reynolds who takes on two other roles) in thrall to the preacher, but she’s not as pure as you think—how did she make her money… hmm… One of the best jokes in the play is that she has been looking in Bedlam for a husband as she was told she’d marry a madman. Will it be Trouble-All (Richard Katz, also Lantern Leatherhead), but no it’s Quarlous in need of money (for his coke habit?) who gets her by lucky chance.

Chancers and hypocrites all, all easily exposed. But not a laugh a minute, these come intermittently, though the actors are all amazing. Forbes Masson does a wonderful turn as a preening female pear-seller, a cool dude trustafarian and the put-upon Humphrey Wasp, long-suffering servant and dogsbody to generous Bartholomew Cokes living up to his name (an endearing Zach Wyatt, tripling as Mooncalf and Haggis), who has more money than sense.

Joshua Lacey and Boadicea Ricketts double as the nouveau riche couple with their white furniture and Wallpaper magazine on the coffee table, she a pussy in pink and he a wide boy with gold chain, and as Ezekiel Edgworth the spiv cutpurse and Nightingale the street performer who work in tandem to fleece the rich. Double side of the coin or cut from the same cloth?

There’s puking (Anita Reynolds as Mrs Alice Overdo must be complimented for that inconvenience), the wrong people put in stocks (I take that on trust as I can’t see them) and drugged women (the JP’s wife and Win Littlewit no less) captured as sex slaves, but all comes right in the end, even if seedy life goes on—what sinners we mortals be.

Accents and gender fluidity are the order of the day, and maybe that’s the only way to create an impression of a multiplicity of characters in a “kaleidoscope of contemporary London life”, as the promotional material says. A slice of seamy Merry England...

Bartholomew Fair was performed only twice in Jonson’s lifetime: its first by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men at the Hope Theatre, Bankside, London, on a festive day, Halloween, 31 October 1614, and the next night for King James and the court in Whitehall. And then nothing till 1661, no doubt because of its Puritan bashing… But Jonson just about covered all bases with those two performances.

McIntyre’s version may settle in yet into its long run, but it’s not there yet. The musicians (Richie Hart on tuba and bass, Samantha Norman on violin, and Phill Ward on guitar) bring a much-needed jaunty air to the proceedings. We are encouraged to clap as the troupe dance and conga (choreographer Coral Messum) round the stage: the contract between audience and players that the ASM mentions in the Induction of the supposedly longest English renaissance play, which usually comes in at nearly four hours?

This, you’ll be pleased to read, is only two and a half hours. But feels longer. It ends metatheatrically with Cokes saying, “we’ll have the rest of the play at home.” Thank goodness.

Reviewer: Vera Liber