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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


  Patrick Stewart and Ellie Haddington/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

The huge danger with works about, rather than by, Shakespeare is that you end up with one of those biopics in which historical figures, such as Queen Elizabeth (inevitably played by Judi Dench) are seen swanning around London talking about how good that new play called Romeo and Juliet is. 

So for this revival of Edward Bond's 1973 play, first seen at Chichester, the challenge then was to give us a version of Shakespeare the man that does not feel like an animated wax work escaped from Madame Tussauds. Or perhaps more accurately, this was the job of the actor who plays Shakespeare, Patrick Stewart.

This thankfully unsentimental play sees Shakespeare edging towards a Lear-like assessment of his life, even down to the less than loving daughter Judith, who, at least in this version, has none of her father's talent, nor apparently any appreciation of what it produced.

She nags her dad about neglecting his family. There is more anxiety caused by Combe, a local powerful landowner with whom Shakespeare has nothing in common, except that he too owns land and has financial interests to protect, even at the expense of the village's poor labourers. So Shakespeare and Combes – a granite-hard Matthew Marsh – agree to a deal that protects Shakespeare's income. In return, Shakespeare agrees not to speak out against Combes.

The veracity of facts are not the issue here, although Bond has based his play on historical evidence that shows that Shakespeare was in fact a land owner whose income would have been affected by changes imposed by other landowners. But the point is, the play feels true. There is something convincing in seeing a man who transcended material concerns, as no one before him or since, being mired in them. And appropriately enough, Bond follows the title of his play with the strap line Scenes of Money and Death.

Yet despite some moments of theatrical bravura – the seasonal and life transition from Shakespeare's autumn years to winter is heralded by a blizzard pushed into the air with snow shovels – there is little in Angus Jackson's production that is revelatory. For if Shakespeare's Lear definitively reveals the condition of man as his powers wane, then Bond's Shakespeare is inevitably a pale shadow by comparison.

A sullen Stewart sulks his way through the role. When his often-silent Shakespeare speaks, it is to rail against cruelty and to lament a life less full and less fulfilling than it might have been. Catherine Cusack's portrayal of Shakespeare's daughter Judith not only suggests that she had not an ounce of her father's talent, but even less compassion. She would have made a good Goneril. But then this Shakespeare would have been more rewarding if he had been Lear. 


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