Bartholomew Fair

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Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London

It may seem a little perverse to stage Ben Jonson’s sprawling, outdoor Bartholomew Fair in the Globe’s indoor theatre but, as the highly informative programme points out, it was staged both indoors and outdoors at the Hope Theatre when first performed. Despite the heretical use of electric lighting in the normally candlelit Sam Wanamaker Theatre, Blanche McIntyre’s engaging and entertaining production gets the atmosphere right. Hanging the rear of stage in butchered pig carcasses provides the roast pig stall setting while also hinting at darker themes – essentially people trafficking – that lurk among the fun of the fair. Jonson’s city comedy, rarely performed, can be unwieldy but this version, judiciously cut, conjures up the carnival and takes us back to the early 17th century while bridging the gap to our times.

There are thirty-plus roles in the play, but they are cleverly doubled among an eclectic, busy cast of twelve. Jonson’s gloriously earthy, accessible, rich language roles off the tongue of Jenna Augen as the fearsome,  pork stall owner, surrounded by pickpockets, pimps and an Irish ‘horse courser’ and all-round villain, played by Bryony Hannah when she is not Grace Wellborn, an uimpressed French woman in sunglasses at the other end of the social scale. Forbes Masson stands out as an increasingly angry Scotsman, also finding time to play a crusty hustler and, spectacularly, a ludicrous simpering woman selling pears. Zach Wyatt is highly entertaining as the rich young man who is everybody’s gull.

The Fair brings a motley collection of the cunning and the foolish, and most the latter think they are the former. Foremost is Dickon Tyrrell’s Clousea-esque JP, Adam Overdo, scoping wrongdoing in disguise. As the figure of authority he might be expected to restore order at the end of the play, but instead the dominant figure is Jude Owusu’s ambivalent, menacing Tom Quarlous who bests everyone. The play is full of energy, and highly entertaining throughout, while making no attempt to glamorise the city’s underbelly. It seems modern and ancient in equal measure, rather like Smithfield where the St. Bartholomew Fair was held for centuries. McIntyre makes a powerful case for this play, one of Jonson’s greatest achievements, to be seen far more often.

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