Since returning to the U.K. from Tinseltown six years ago, Patrick Stewart has made a successful trawl through many of Shakespeare’s great roles: Macbeth (in a Chichester production that went on to the West End and Broadway), Prospero, Claudius, Malvolio. Now he’s playing the Bard himself, in Edward Bond’s 1973 play that imagines the wealthy, aging playwright living out his last days in Stratford-upon-Avon in a cloud of isolation and self-loathing. Even Stewart’s star power, however, cannot liven up the play’s heavy-handed politics and lack of compelling action.
Bond’s play fictionalizes around the fact that, late in his life, Shakespeare signed a contract to protect his considerable land holdings, thus participating in enclosures that negatively affected the livelihoods of local peasants. The notion that this famed humanist writer could have acted in such self-interest is a burr under Bond’s Marxist saddle, and he paints a portrait of a tormented, sometimes eloquent, but sometimes pointedly silent Shakespeare descending toward eventual suicide.
Stewart clearly loves the play: He starred in it once before, in a 1977 RSC staging, and this Chichester production was his idea. Sleekly handsome in Robert Innes Hopkins’ luxurious black jerkin and breeches, Stewart speaks beautifully and glowers convincingly, but it is difficult to feel fully engaged in or moved by Shakespeare’s anguish — which may be Bond’s point. Brecht is clearly an influence on the play’s schematic form — six scenes that all revolve around the titular themes of money and death — and there is, overall, a cool abruptness to the way in which the action is written and played.
Play dramatizes many upsetting events — a brain-damaged gardener (John McEnery) pays a beggar woman (Michelle Tate) for sex; that same beggar woman is killed by the wealthy for having inadvertently destroyed property in her efforts to shelter herself; Shakespeare treats his daughter (Catherine Cusack) and never-seen wife with indifference that mounts to outright hostility — but Bond’s apparent attempt here is not to evoke empathy but provoke political anger at the negative effects capitalism has on society.
Brief comic respite is provided in an extended drunken exchange between Shakespeare and his younger rival Ben Jonson (the brilliantly louche Richard McCabe), and the Old Woman, beautifully played by Ellie Haddington, is presented as an idealized combination of plain-spoken pragmatism and compassion.
Bond’s political project is clear, but little that he is saying is news. That not much important action takes place on stage may be part of his point, but adds to the feeling this is more of a lesson than a drama. Angus Jackson’s production is elegantly staged, and he and Hopkins handle the necessary scene shifts particularly well (though the fact that a moment when snow is swept up by stagehands is the evening’s most dramatically compelling moment does illustrate the larger problem).
As his recent appearances in Shakespeare and the West End revival of “Waiting for Godot” have proven, Stewart is B.O. gold in Blighty these days. A few strong broadsheet reviews and limited ticket availability in Chichester may stimulate talk of a London transfer, but anything more than a limited run would be risky.