Patrick Stewart has played his fair share of Shakespearian characters in the past but, in Bingo, he is faced with the ultimate Shakespearian challenge: playing the playwright himself.
It is possible that Stewart’s past performances prepared him for this role because, after all, Angus Jackson’s production of Edward Bond’s Bingo has a little bit of everything. With “snips” of humour from the Bard’s comedies, a tragic situation similar to that of King Lear and a troubled Shakespeare whose inner turmoil and suffering resembles a tempest, the play is a roller coaster ride of an emotional journey.
Stewart’s role is an incredibly complex one and the character’s many different sides are reflected in the play’s shifting time sequence. The cold-heartedness he shows towards his wife and daughter is reflected in the winter’s fallen snow, and his warm compassion towards his gardener (John McEnery) and a beggar woman (Michelle Tate) is reflected in the warm spring that follows. As Shakespeare himself admits, he walks the path between the seasons, divided between anger and serenity.
Set at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare is nearing the end of his life, Bingo reveals very little of the Bard’s writing flare, but there are rare moments that bring back to life his poetic genius. A beautiful description of a swan, like a lady dressed in white running through an empty street, provides a refreshing insight into Shakespeare’s former life of creativity which has now been replaced by one that is governed by money, hatred and death.
Bond presents Shakespeare as an aging man constantly tormented by the thought that he has achieved nothing in his life and racked with guilt about the cruelty being inflicted on the lower classes. However, there is one moment that offers a departure from this melancholy and it comes in the form of Shakespeare’s fellow poet and playwright Ben Jonson (Richard McCabe). McCabe’s brilliantly convincing inebriated state adds a huge amount of amusement to the play as he staggers across the stage and makes cheeky digs about the Bard’s work.
But if there was one thing that I wasn’t expecting from this play, it was a snowball fight. Yes, Shakespeare in a snowball fight, albeit a very tame one. These bizarre moments of hilarity are soon left behind, however, as the play reaches its tragic and disturbing conclusion.