Cock Tavern Theatre
This is the first London revival of Bond's play about the poet John Clare since the premiere directed by Peter Gill at the Royal Court in 1975 (when it was voted 'Best Play of the Year' by Plays and Players). In a change from what advance publicity announced, it is directed by the author himself. It opens at Christmas 1815, when the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo had brought peace but also a fall in prices and cuts in wages as well as increasing industrialisation and an agricultural revolution that saw woodlands and fens being cleared for agriculture, thus depriving country folk of free timber and fishing.
Bond tells Clare's personal story against the political and social background of the Littleport riots of 1816, setting the plight of the farm labourer against the comfort of the landed gentry. In one telling scene the local parson is stripped of clothes and possessions by the peasantry. As the women feel his plump flesh the undernourished men accuse him of taking their flesh, their fat. The wealthy describe the labourers as 'animals trying to live in houses'. The rebels are arrested. Clare is not among those charged but is visiting his friends in prison when they hear who is to be reprieved and transported and who is to hang.
Subtitled Scenes of bread and love, The Fool gives glimpses of Clare's life rather than narrating his whole story, selected moments rather than the full detailed history. Bond is more interested in the conflict between the poet who loves his countryside and sees it and the lives of his fellows being ruined and the fashionable society folk who patronise him as a peasant poet. Gamekeepers patrol the front of the stage as Clare ruts in the shadows with the woman who becomes the subject of many poems. Bare-knuckle boxers prepare to fight as Clare's gentry patrons, talking with him in Hyde Park, insist that he remove bitter comments about landowners from his poems, browbeaten if not physically battered. Bond's production, in a variation of the white box which seems to be the setting for this whole Bond season, is lacking in any sense of place but strong on context.
Long-haired Ben Crispin, making his London debut, looks too handsome and romantic to suggest the undernourished five-foot-nothing of the real Clare but he brings passion to his playing and is particularly moving as, mouthing but unable to speak and his eyes searching for something he can connect with, we see him in the asylum of his final years.
Rosanna Miles as Patty, the woman Clare marries, presents a caring woman hardened by circumstance, a realist stuck with a husband driven by the words in his head. When she visits her husband in the Essex asylum, making her first trip away from Northamptonshire and by steam train, they talk across the motionless figure of their fellow villager Darkie in the pose of Rodin's thinker. James Kenward gives us a Darkie who is brain damaged and blind (he was one of the fighters seen earlier), in sad contrast to the active youth of the early scenes, but even sightless he can still floor Clare.
It is a strong cast, and, at 17, a big one for such a small venue, but they are still kept busy playing 37 characters. Things sometimes become a little crowded and at times the action spills into the aisles but the story is too fragmented for the audience to get caught up in it. Rather one is observing the contrasts in this society, for Bond does not make a caricature of his wealthy - he shows their compassion and what they consider their social responsibility as landowners - but also makes clear their total lack of understanding of the have-nots' situation by the haves. That is something that really hasn't changed, however generously they may support suitably worthy causes. As Clare's patron Mrs Emmerson (Diana Katis) explains, she can hardly manage on her income. She may find it a struggle to keep her place in society but her inherited income is much much more than any agricultural labourer could earn, however many hours he works.
Playing in repertoire with "The Under Room" until 23rd October 2010
Reviewer: Howard Loxton