Ben Jonson’s 17th-century city comedy Bartholomew Fair is a sprawling play. It’s stuffed with characters and teems with London life; it’s not an easy thing to constrain or contain.
Blanche McIntyre’s cut-down production – it usually runs to over four hours – attempts to cram it into the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, instead of putting it on the main stage at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s an intriguing and bold choice – a bottled metropolis – but one that doesn’t quite pay off.
Set in and around the notorious fair of the title, which took place near Smithfield and was renowned for its debauchery, Jonson’s play is definitely not short of plot. There are numerous overlapping stories. The fair acts as a crucible in which the city’s rich and poor rub shoulders and the usual social codes fall away. All human life is here, or at least its uglier aspects.
McIntyre’s production attempts to find contemporary parallels for Jonson’s characters. There are buskers, petty crooks, hawkers, spivs, and the seemingly obligatory comedy Russian, plus a bloated and bow-tied American preacher (Jenna Augen) who appears to have escaped from Jerry Springer: The Opera.
Dickon Tyrrell is good fun as the uptight Justice Overdo, camouflaged by a sandwich board, and on the lookout for bad behaviour – it’s not a spoiler to say he doesn’t have to look far.
Because of the vast cast of characters, the 12 actors are required to double, or in some cases triple. The original play was full of recognisable London types and McIntyre’s update maintains this, deploying comically broad accents or padding out the actors in fat suits.
Jonson also loved a bit of metatheatre and a puppet show in the second half performed by Richard Katz is a comic highlight, as is the moment when an apologetic stage manager (Tyrrell again) wanders on and blames the northern line for an actor’s absence. However, few things top Forbes Masson wielding a massive stuffed Pikachu as a weapon.
The Sam Wanamaker space, usually one of the most atmospheric in London, has been de-prettified with designer Ti Green building over some of the seats and mirroring the walls. The lights are left up, a row of pig carcasses dangle from the ceiling along with a remote-controlled gantry full of fairground prizes.
This feels like a production constructed by someone who knows the play intimately and has thought carefully about how it might resonate with a modern audience. McIntyre has been itching to stage it for ages. Although it’s always enjoyable and has an agreeable momentum, it can feel confusing at times – all the plots within plots can be hard to follow – if you’re not at least reasonably familiar with the source text. Though much of the ugliness is intentional, some of it, particularly in regards to the female characters, who are repeatedly misused, becomes a bit wearying. It’s a messy thing, but what city isn’t?