Arts: Welcome, people, one and all, to Bartholomew Fair

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The RSC's new, carnival-style staging of Ben Jonson's rarely seen comedy finally frees the text from the fettering footnotes of its classic status. Even Puritans, says Paul Taylor, will enjoy the fun of this `Fair'.

Laurence Boswell's production of Bartholomew Fair is the most brilliantly entertaining breach of the peace the RSC has served up in a long time. Ben Jonson's mighty Jacobean comedy - in which self-deceived, two-faced Puritans go on a research trip into the great, avid, reeking maw of the Fair and get badly mangled - has a reputation for being the kind of show that, pullulatingly populous and full of specificities and argot now past their sell-by date, triggers winnies of learned laughter in the senior common room but leaves the general theatre-going public unable to find their feet amidst the footnotes.

Productions, few on the ground, tend to disappoint. Richard Eyre's Victorian vision of the piece at the National in the late 1980s painstakingly and intelligently fingered Jonson as the pungent precursor of Dickens. But, perhaps because of its tripling of historical perspectives, that staging had too tethered a feel. Boswell's, set in a Notting Hill Carnival-like atmosphere, goes into orbit. Move over Martin Amis, it's Jonson who is our contemporary.

The admirable rule (pioneered at the Royal Court) that you should do modern plays as if they were classics, and classic plays as if they were hot off the press, is put into practice here with elating chutzpah, malign energy and (by and large) inspired loyalty to the original. Boswell's Bartholomew Fair would give a buzz and many a thought-provoking belly- laugh to the young audiences now packing out the same director's production of Ben Elton's Popcorn: it is, therefore, in sharp contrast to this week's other Stratford opening of a classic.

Gregory Doran's Merchant of Venice, starring Philip Voss as Shylock, is for the middle-aged at heart. There are some nice touches: an Antonio so ascetically thin that Voss's hammily tragic, knife-wielding Shylock is hard put to scrunch up enough withered flesh to cut; Shylock's humiliation signalled by the fact that, attempting to rise to his feet to leave the court, he keeps falling back to his knees on the slippery carpet of gold coins contemptuously flung down for him earlier. But, set in a Venice of determinedly brooding mists, oppressive black walls and spitting Christian racists - and with a Portia (from Helen Schlesinger) who doesn't convince you that Belmont would be much of a picnic either - this is a staging that, for long stretches, comes across as just the latest thing to fall off the RSC's main-stage Shakespeare machine.

Bartholomew Fair is in a different league altogether. Louche, sleazy, at once arousing and intimidating, this kind of fair appeals to that part in everyone that would like to be defiled. Boswell evokes this setting, a kind of red-light district of the soul, with great wit and economy. For example, a curtain made up of long strings of light bulbs that sashays back and forth over the stage can also swing on its axis - a knack that comes in handy when the production wants to show us, filmically, the dizzy, strobing way the world looks from inside the skull of an innocent who is going out of his skull on the party atmosphere created, as a diversion, by pickpockets. Hilarity shades into the sinister and back into hilarity. Imagine the young Alec Guinness trying to do a funky Marvin Gaye impression and you'll get some idea of the blissfully funny incongruity of the sequence where, to a live reggae number, Tom Goodman-Hill's terminally guileless young heir (literature's first recorded shopaholic) tries to dance up a storm like the cool Jamaican dude he so egregiously isn't.

Dream casting brings Jonson's vast canvas of eccentrics and hypocrites to life with rollicking recognisability, from Rob Edwards' splendid Quarlous, a superior-acting drop-out on the make who is like a frowstily hung-over refugee from Withnail and I, to David Henry's spherically well-fed Zeal- of-the-land Busy, the kind of born-again "visionary" who these days would be raking it in on a Christian cable channel. This charlatan decides it is quite all right for a Puritan to eat Bartholomew-pig provided one consumes it with a "reformed mouth", a sophistry tantamount to saying that sodomy is fine for Christian fundamentalists provided it is engaged in with a "reformed anus". John Quayle's Adam Overdo, the censorious Justice of the Peace who monitors the iniquities in the guise of a madman, is first seen emerging from hiding in a skip. Best place for this idiot in a play full of potential but disqualified moral arbiters. Roll up, roll up, for the delectably dubious fun of this Fair.

`Bartholomew Fair' at the Swan, `Merchant of Venice' at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (booking: 01789 295623)