Eyes down for a full house: Edward Bond's provocative title is curiously apt, as the entire run of the play is virtually sold out. Why? Because Patrick Stewart is Shakespeare, a role he played in the same play 33 years ago with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and London.
In the last days of his life, Stewart's playwright, an inscrutable figure in Jacobean black hose and tunic, is frozen immobile in a Warwickshire landscape of domestic unhappiness, civil riot and dispute over the enclosures. He has 100 acres and many rents, and he does nothing. He writes nothing. He cares for no one. He kills himself.
Stewart, whose Buddha-like stillness and apparent serenity are deeply unnerving, has changed tack, turning the anger and irritability of his RSC performance inwards into anguish and despair. The severity of the play is still startling, constructed in six stern and serrated scenes of money and death.
Angus Jackson's production is brilliantly and starkly designed by Robert Innes Hopkins: the snowscape is not, for once, done with a white sheet; the panelled interior of the inn where Shakespeare drinks with Richard McCabe's sottish and hilarious Ben Jonson is the reverse side of the Bard's bedroom in New Place; and the great garden hedge is both Shakespeare's barrier and his own enclosure.
This was the first of several Bond plays to take up creative cudgels with our greatest dramatist. It's not a biographical play, but a bracingly critical allegory of an artist's impotency, even if Bond ingenuously suggests that Shakespeare condones the rapacity of the age by not writing about it, and in signing up to the land enclosures. A travelling girl (Michelle Tate) is hidden away for sex by Shakespeare's filthy old gardener (John McEnery) and then whipped and dismissed by his puritanical son (Alex Price).
She's next seen dead, gibbeted on a tall pole, half-covered in sacking while Stewart delivers the great bear-baiting speech ("The Queen cheered them on in shrill Latin"), registering a level of disgust he can't manage in his art. And this brutality is a direct result of the land enclosures being authorised by Jason Watkins's impatient, irascible William Combe.
Shakespeare is haunted by fragments of King Lear but they don't help when he's lost and alone in the fields, or rolling in the snow: "I could lie in this snow a whole life. I can think now, the thoughts come so easily over the snow and under my shroud."
Gielgud was uncomfortable in the play but found a haunting beauty in the lines that Bond probably didn't want. Stewart flattens out all lyricism, suggesting an eerie, ghost-like quality, unafraid to leave the audience thoroughly perplexed by his lack of emotional commitment.
His passivity drives his daughter Judith distraught. Catherine Cusack makes a great deal of Judith's concern with the world – and her own mother, whom we never see – beating at the door. Judith can be played as a savage Goneril, but Cusack finds something more subtle in the role, even when rummaging in the bedroom for the missing will as Will goes missing.
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