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The Theatreguide.London Review

Young Vic Theatre   Spring 2012

This is the idea for a play more than the play itself, an impressionistic poem on the images and thoughts in Edward Bond's head when he wrote it in 1973. Some of the images are strong and some of the ideas thought-provoking, but those who want a linear plot and fully-developed characters will be disappointed. 

Bond imagines William Shakespeare in the last year of his life, burned-out as a writer, disgusted by London and unable to find peace in his Stratford retirement. 

He has no love or sympathy for his family and only marginally more for a loyal servant couple and a passing beggar girl. The concerns of the poor or the socially-aware in the town bore or actively annoy him, and he can't even take any satisfaction in his own achievements. 

Because he is Edward Bond, Edward Bond defines this all in socialist terms. Stratford's landowners are planning to enclose what were common farmlands and evict the tenants, and landlord Shakespeare won't get involved any further than making sure his own income is unthreatened.

But he is jolted enough to begin spouting Marxist clichés – property is theft, living comfortably is a crime when there are poor people, being content is a sin when others are unhappy. He doesn't do anything about it, but this new and minimal social awareness gives some focus to his malaise. 

And that is probably the weakest element in the play. We expect more than platitudes from Shakespeare (even if they do anticipate Marx by 350 years), and specificity has the effect of trivialising his existential unhappiness.

In the original Royal Court production almost four decades ago John Gielgud played Shakespeare as almost catatonic in his boredom and withdrawal from life. Patrick Stewart makes him more actively angry and disgusted, with the pettiness of those around him, the ugliness of the world, and yes, the Marxist injustices – but most of all anything that disturbs his search for peace and quiet. 

It's a strong performance, sometimes trying to give the character more depth and colours than Bond actually wrote. 

Ellie Haddington is sympathetic as an old servant whose undemanding love does manage occasionally to break through Shakespeare's shell, John McEnery is touching as her addled husband and Michelle Tate as the doomed beggar, and Richard McCabe gets to steal an essentially irrelevant scene as the visiting Ben Jonson.

Gerald Berkowitz

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