The year they invented Shakespeare

Peter Barnes is not one of Shakespeare's greatest fans. So why did the RSC ask him to write a play about the Stratford Jubilee with which Garrick initiated the cult of the Bard in 1769?
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Earlier this year, Adrian Noble announced a radical restructuring of the Royal Shakespeare Company. This total shake-up will involve, among other things, more work opening in the capital than in Stratford, in spaces ranging from the West End to the Young Vic, Collins Music Hall in Islington, the Round House and the Hackney Empire. How ironic, then, that the RSC is just about to open a new play about Garrick's great Stratford Jubilee of 1769, three days of celebrations beside the Avon that inaugur- ated the Shakespeare industry and made the Bard's obscure birthplace the base of its operations. Events that led in a direct line to the creation of the RSC in Stratford are finding their way on to the stage at the very time when the Company is shifting its centre of gravity.

The feeling that there's mischievousness afoot is reinforced when you discover that the writer whom they picked to write Jubilee is the savage satirist Peter Barnes. His qualifications for the job include "a love-hate relationship with the RSC", and a pronounced scepticism about Shakespeare. So there's little danger, you'd have thought, that the proceedings will degenerate into a jolly, in-jokey romp.

As we sit in the theatre's riverside café having a cup of tea, this vigorous, straggly haired 70-year-old lays down the law so robustly that at one point his plastic spoon snaps and splinters fly in all directions, nearly blinding me. The heads of sedate lunchers keep turning as, with magnificent obliviousness, he pours loud, forthright scorn on everything they hold dear. The English obsession with anniversaries ("they have nothing much to look forward to, so they insist on looking back") is one of his big beefs. Therefore, the idea of commemorating a commemoration is not something he was ever prepared to do straight.

Jubilee is, however, the first stage play he has written at someone else's suggestion. Barnes finances his fiercely independent theatre work by writing mini-series for American television: "Seventy million people saw my two-parter Merlin, whereas I was lucky if we got 70 people a night when my last play, Dreaming, was on in the West End. But those 70, who have actually taken the trouble to get up off their butts, mean far more to me."

Refusing to accept theatrical commissions on principle, he was nonetheless stimulated when RSC director, Greg Doran, made the Jubilee proposal, to see whether he could turn the material into "a Peter Barnes play". He laughs when he recalls the unwonted speed with which this project went through the system. "If the idea originates with the writer, they keep you waiting forever. It famously took them seven years to give me an answer on Red Noses. But because the idea came from them, Greg was on the phone the next day."

The profiteering meanness of Stratford looms large in this story. The townsfolk had demonstrated the depth of their love for their most gifted son by completely ignoring the bicentenary of his birth in 1764. But, three years later, the burghers found themselves with insufficient funds to complete their new town hall. So they decided to exploit the Shakespeare connection by approaching David Garrick, the foremost actor of his day, to see if he would contribute a bust and a portrait of the Bard whose work he had championed. The bribe was the freedom of the town and a casket carved out of that inexhaustible stash of wood from the mulberry tree that once stood in Shakespeare's garden. The burghers shrewdly linked the notion of the playwright's immortality to that of the actor ("they would be equally pleased to have some Picture of yourself that the memory of both may be perpetuated together in that place which gave him birth and where he still lives in the mind of every Inhabitant"). Hooked, Garrick came up with the idea of the jubilee tribute that put the town on the map.

The irony is that not a word of Shakespeare was spoken during all of the processions, feasts, firework displays, races and dances that were laid on for London's visiting crème de la crème. These toffs were not only subjected to the sharp practices of the Stratford locals, but also ended up drenched and falling off duckboards into the mud, as the September rains fell and the Avon burst its banks. What saved the event was the "Ode to Shakespeare" with which Garrick held his audience rapt. "It was an actor's triumph," says Barnes, "because if you read the Ode, it's a load of terrible bombastic doggerel. But it succeeded in canonising Shakespeare."

I tell Barnes that the form and spirit of his play, with its constant cry of "Jubilee prices!" remind me of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, where another crowd of tourists get rooked and converted. He's pleased by the comparison. A grievance aired in the play is that the Jubilee enshrined the practice of exalting this one dramatist at the expense of a wealth of other excellent writers. Certainly, you would choose Jonson rather than Shakespeare, if you wanted a biting comedy about the start of the Shakespeare industry. "Jonson was funny. Shakespeare wasn't. Also Jonson was a republican in the sense that he writes about ordinary people trying to make a living. In practically every Shakespeare play, the main protagonists are royalty or the nobility."

On the Bard, Barnes bashes a much-thumped tub. He rails against the "moral squalor" of plays such as The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew, and deplores our acceptance of what is humanly ugly in the works because everything is served up in "a golden syrup of words". Though he admires Garrick, he feels the Jubilee was "a retrograde step", fixing people in a backward-looking posture of veneration, suggesting that the best is already over, when "it is what is coming next that is exciting and important".

As for the tricky relationship between Stratford and Shakespeare's art, Barnes claims that the relevance of the play is that it shows nothing changes. "One of the characters says that what Stratford should really be putting on is a turnip festival. And I swear that if they could get as much money coming into the town from turnips, they would prefer it. They wouldn't have to put up with all these arty-farty actors and writers." At the time of the first Jubilee, the London papers seethed with sometimes wildly inaccurate and snobbish gossip. For example, Garrick was said to have dispatched the actor Robert Baddeley, renowned for his portrayal of the Lord Mayor in Richard III, to give the Mayor of Stratford much-needed lessons in etiquette.

I asked Barnes whether the current mayor has been invited to the first night of Jubilee. He responded with an anecdote. "My first play was called Sclerosis, which Charles Marowitz directed in Edinburgh. It was about a British torture unit in Cyprus. For some reason, the theatre invited the Lord Mayor to the premiere, which seemed like the height of insensitivity. But afterwards, he pulled me aside and said: 'I enjoyed that. You really hit the mark. The English are always doing that sort of thing and we Scots have had to put up with it for years.' But no, I don't think we'd get away with it this time..."

'Jubilee' opens tomorrow at the Swan Theatre, Stratford (01789 403403) and continues to 13 October