Patrick Stewart is back on the London stage with this revival by the Chichester Festival Theatre of Edward Bond's 1975 play about Shakespeare in the last months of his life. There's bound to be keen interest in getting a close-up peak at this well-known and very fine actor who, at 71, is two decades older than the man he is portraying here, but remains in top-notch acting form nonetheless.
The short title of this play - 'Bingo' - is somewhat obscure. Mr Bond did once 'explain' the reference to that pastime, though the explanation is more confusing to me than the title itself. But there's more information in the full title: 'Bingo – Scenes of Money and Death'. Not a lot to laugh about, you might think, and you would be right.
When we first meet Mr Stewart's Shakespeare, he is back in his native Stratford with his family – his wife, and Judith, his nagging daughter. We never get to see his wife who appears to be an invalid, but Judith continually berates her father, claiming that he sees his family as enemies, and resents Shakespeare's treatment of her mother. For the first few minutes of the play Shakespeare sits brooding in his garden and says very little while his gardener takes the odd snip at a privet hedge. A young vagrant girl comes begging for money and Shakespeare goes off to fetch her some. While he is away, the old gardener takes the girl off to the back of the garden for sex, but the pair are discovered by the gardener's puritanical son, and the girl is sentenced to be whipped for being out of her parish without permission. Subsequently, the girl remains in the area, is accused of arson and promptly hanged. Though Shakespeare is obviously moved by the event, he does nothing to prevent it.
Shakespeare is also involved in a local enclosure scheme that is likely to force many tenant farmers to join the already swollen ranks of the local poor. Shakespeare is worried about being poor himself in his old age, and puts his interests before those of his neighbours, striking a deal which will enable the enclosure to proceed but protect his income.
'Bingo' is hardly high on my list of the most riveting plays, in part because the first half is rather pedestrian, brooding and contemplative. However, the second half starts with much more energy and zip with the appearance of the mercurial poet, actor and dramatist Ben Johnson, reputedly Shakespeare's rival. Johnson (excellently played Richard McCabe) is one of those quarrelsome, hard-drinking, larger-than-life characters, who finds it almost impossible to stay out of rouble. He meets up with Shakespeare in an inn and they get drunk, oblivious to the unfolding violent protests against the enclosure.
Patrick Stewart's Shakespeare is essentially kind and sensitive, even if he ignores his wife and finds family life irritating. In a sense, he is trapped in the middle, 'stupefied by the suffering' he saw in London, but unable or unwilling to do anything about the suffering he finds surrounding him in his home town. The ultimate outcome is obvious, and when he has decided on his fate, he takes his 'medicine' with dogged, mechanical determination. Mr Stewart's performance and Angus Jackson's direction are pretty-much faultless, even given my reservations about the pace. The scene with the beggar girl's body hanging from the gibbet is mesmerisingly poignant and impressively executed, and there's fine support, especially from Ellie Haddington as the liberal-minded old woman.
'Bingo' is about money, wealth and power, and a political system that kept the poor in miserable conditions and, to a considerable extent, still favours the rich. It is also about the impotence of artists to effect change in society. With injustice surrounding him, Shakespeare can find nothing to write about, and retreats into self-centred morbidity culminating in suicide. It is left to the poor to take action to attempt to improve their lot. The themes which Edward Bond explores are still relevant and hugely important and I have great sympathy with his views but his play, for all its good intentions, just isn't sufficiently gripping.
"Arid enclosed acres of dramatic boredom...surround McCabe’s thrilling tour de force."
Charles Spencer for the Daily Telegraph
"Bond's lugubrious, monotonous writing transforms the potent subject matter into something wearingly reductive."
Fiona Mountford for the Evening Standard
"The fluent, production does Bond's stagecraft proud with its pictorial high-definition. Its performances exceed the text in quality."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It's an evening that confirms Bond's 1973 play has achieved the status of a modern classic. "
Michael Billington for The Guardian