An old man sits, pensive, in his garden. Another old man prunes the box hedge behind him. Who are they? Well, one is just an old man – the sort of ancient who might appear in a Shakespeare play to voice the common view. The other, in this 1973 Edward Bond play, is Shakespeare himself. Bond imagines the playwright back in his Warwickshire home at the end of his life, withdrawn from the bustle of London life and caught up in the increasing unrest accompanying the enclosure of local land. It is a promising premise, offering the prospect of an imagined engagement with the great writer (played here with charismatic gravitas by Patrick Stewart) and his dealings with the real world. But it proves a frustratingly stolid evening because the scenes themselves are strangely inert and lacking in dramatic energy.
Bond’s play splices Shakespeare and Brecht. Subtitled “Scenes of Money and Death”, it shows Shakespeare wandering through a landscape that is part Lear, part Mother Courage, as the playwright’s personal decline and increasing introspection is set against that of an England seething with inequality and brutality. Bond seizes on the paradox that the writer who could imagine Lear’s journey appears to have preserved his own interests when faced with the prospect of local peasants being made homeless by enclosure. Here Shakespeare is collapsing, personally and artistically, under this conflict. Withdrawn, troubled and taciturn, he is gruff with his love-starved daughter (the fine Catherine Cusack), who becomes increasingly pinched as she tries to persuade her recalcitrant father to come in off a snow-covered field in which local landowners and peasants fight as enclosure riots gather pace.
It’s a deliberately stark piece and there is bleak, jagged beauty here. But the episodic, schematic nature of the drama muffles the narrative, distances you from the characters, some of whom are thinly drawn, and from the play’s argument for a more equal society. There is one scene in which the play lifts off: a witty encounter in the local tavern with Ben Jonson, spectacularly drunk and disorderly in Richard McCabe’s excellent performance. Jonson, jealous of Shakespeare’s genius, taunts him, while trying to touch him for a loan.
Elsewhere, though, it is curiously unengaging, despite the huge political, moral and philosophical issues it raises, and despite Angus Jackson’s atmospheric production, led by Stewart’s immensely compelling performance as a man “stupefied by the suffering I’ve seen”.