White sofas, bleached wood panelling and walls of mirrors fill the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for Blanche McIntyre’s adaptation of Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson. Ti Green’s commercial silver and off-white set design has a decidedly un-SWP feel to it, and it’s exciting to see a set designer so decidedly take over the Playhouse. Which isn’t to say Green disrespects its idiosyncratic décor and aesthetic, but that in doing the opposite of what most designers do in the boxy theatre – working in conscious harmony with the Jacobean recreation – other hidden qualities of it become noticeable. The doors at the back of the stage, for example, now open to reveal a maze of mirrored walkways similar to a fairground fun house of distorted reflections.
This metaphor of mirroring features throughout a play that involves twelve actors playing thirty characters. The cropped mirrors lining the pit area partially reflect the audience back on itself, similar to how McIntyre’s modern update locates the doppelgangers of Jonson’s original characters in contemporary Britain. And, like in a freaky fairground room of mirrors, they’re all slightly crudely drawn versions of real life as indeed they were when Jonson’s created people named, for instance, ‘Grace Wellborn’ and ‘John Littlewit’.
The list of characters, differentiated by un-subtle accents and much better costumes, read like the line-up of a 1950s joke: an English aristocratic, an Irish jockey, a Welsh security guard etc etc. The idea behind the accents is to demonstrate how an event like the London-based Bartholomew Fair would have been attended by people speaking languages from all across the globe, as indeed would its modern counterpart. Yet in conforming so closely to recognisable stereotypes, in particular how geographical accents overlap with class or, worse, how accents are assumed to denote levels of intelligence or aspiration (the gold-digger, the thief and so on), this aspect of the production never surpasses being various levels of cringe-inducing.
Despite this, there are enough excellent performers in the cast to make it generally worth watching and frequently enjoyable. The brilliant Boadicea Ricketts is especially good fun to watch. She first appears as Win Littlewit looking like a model from an Ann Summers maternity photoshot (if such a thing existed*), which is to say she looks exactly like someone from the Ann Summers catalogue, plus huge baby bump under baby doll negligee. She then doubles as Nightingale, the Converse-wearing singer entertaining the crowds at the fair, delivering vocals deserved of the character’s nickname. Zach Wyatt, as the super dozy Bartholomew Cokes throwing twenty quid notes around willy-nilly, likewise introduces more subtlety through his performance than his broad character would otherwise possess.
But unlike how the contrast between the modernist set design and 17th century playhouse interior works well, the other obvious tension between the teeny-tinyness of the enclosed space and the sprawling outdoor fair described by Jonson doesn’t. It might be a bit obvious to point out, but if there’s one venue in London pretty much perfectly suited to staging a huge, outdoor event with multiple exits and entrances isn’t it, umm… Shakespeare’s Globe? Apparently there were original plans to stage McIntyre’s production throughout the building, rather than just in the Wanamaker, which sounds like such a tantalising idea. As it is, entering the indoor playhouse in late August feels slightly odd in itself, let alone to watch a play about mass outdoor theatricals. At the moment, this production is a house party – but it could have been a festival.
*Does it exist? I can’t find it in me to Google the answer.