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Theatre review Cramping Jonson’s style

SIMON PARSONS sees a sprawling 17th-century comedy of London life straitjacketed in the intimate confines of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Bartholomew Fair
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

PROCLAIMING it to be “the best in the world,” diarist Samuel Pepys was so impressed with Ben Jonson’s 1614 city comedy Bartholomew Fair that he saw it four times.

He would probably not have been so generous with his praise if he had seen this current production.

Director Blanche McIntyre may be fully aware of the challenges posed by squeezing the longest play of that period — it has 36 named characters too — into this small-scale playhouse. But she has stumbled in the execution, despite extensive editing.

Jonson’s broad vista of London life during the festive antics and excesses of the historic fair are depicted by an energetic cast of 12, who feverishly multi-role.

Yet the action, sprawling throughout the auditorium, is often confusingly concealed from the audience by galleries and scenery.

Ti Green’s stage design, engulfing the stage in what looks like a mirror-maze, does more to confuse the already convoluted storylines than open up the space and the use of stage lighting diffuses much of the unique atmosphere of what is usually a candlelit playing space.

The humour is mostly generated from the modern adaptations — Cathy Hills’s bright contemporary costumes, recognisable fairground tat and the use of digital appliances.

Otherwise, it is only the more extreme caricatures that provoke a response. Jonson’s challenge to social identities and dealings fails to make much of an impression with a welter of national and international accents only differentiating characters rather than contributing to the satire.

The three-piece band and the concluding burlesque puppet show provide a focus, but otherwise it is as if you’re watching the action through a peep hole where what is happening off stage is often more of a distraction than what is on view.

Only performed a handful of times in living memory, Bartholomew Fair has once again proved difficult to stage successfully.

But the decision to cram it into such a compact and confined space rather than use the much larger, open, Globe stage has not done it any favours.

Runs until October 12, box office: shakespearesglobe.com.

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