The John Barleycorn of legend is a gentle trickster; offering himself to the millers and brewers as a sacrifice only to be reincarnated as The Bread and the Beer.
Writer and sole performer Tristan Bernays takes a more visceral approach re-imagining John as an elemental pagan life force whose intoxicating personality wreaks havoc amongst London office workers. But having satisfied their thirst John finds he must placate their hunger for flesh.
This is an ambitious production demonstrating the flexibility of theatre. Its most striking feature – and one that might make it an acquired taste- is that it is told entirely in blank verse.
This baroque style suits the grandiose concept of a God re-born and reflects the excesses displayed by those who fall under his spell. The over the top lyricism is an excellent way of conveying to the audience the desperate sound of nature being stifled by cities.
Sophie Larsmon directs with a mixture of subtly and exuberance. Shadows and flickering images are skilfully used to create scenes in gaol cells and to depict the awaking of the trickster. Yet Larsmon is aware that the subject matter and manner of presentation needs a larger than life performance from Bernays. He prowls the stage with snarling teeth and manic eyes and all gestures are large and overblown.
This is a daring approach and a perfect match for the verse, which simply would not be served by a more naturalistic sedate interpretation. And Bernays delivers his tale with passion. Entering by dashing down the aisle and imploring this audience to listen to the noise of nature. He even manages to nudge in humour denying that his slight frame could be mistaken for a god then crying 'don't all dispute at once' and attempting John's seduction techniques on an unimpressed audience member.
Yet rather than demonstrate that the sensations John awakens are a return to a more natural sort of fun than our dull modern day pursuits the activities described in the play end up sounding squalid. Although the behaviour of the citizens may be due to them getting high on nature their antics still sound depressingly like desperate binge drinking rather than cleansing Bacchanalian revelry.
The Bread and the Beer is a daring production with an imaginative approach that shows just what can be achieved in the theatre. Such originality may divide audiences; most will find its high spirits as intoxicating as the alcohol that comes from John Barleycorn. A few might, however, find that it simply generates a hangover.
The Bread and the Beer is next in Dorset on 11 July.
- Dave Cunningham