I didn’t like much about the movie Anonymous but I did like the idea of Shakespeare, as played by Rafe Spall, crashing about as a chaotically bad actor and patching his plays together in a process of trial, error and maverick deception.

Patrick Stewart offers an equally alarming, though very different, and more soberly expressed, version of the Bard of Avon in Edward Bond’s fine, elliptical 1973 play, which he first acted with the RSC in 1977; the first London embodiment of Bond’s Shakespeare was John Gielgud, who added a lyrical patina Stewart eschews entirely.

Angus Jackson’s production, and this performance, dates from two years ago at the Minerva in Chichester, and Stewart recycles his intriguing and curiously detached presentation of an artist who’s given up work, given up hope and goes quietly into that dark night with the political flow; though not before a sudden fit of rage about bear-baiting (“The Queen cheered them on in shrill Latin”).

He becomes complicit in the land enclosures, is briefly goaded into action by the plight of a starving traveller, chivvied by Richard McCabe’s gloriously drunken Ben Jonson, screamed at on his deathbed by his unseen wife and helped on his way by a sour and spinsterish daughter (Catherine Cusack).

The action - “six scenes of money and death” - is played out on a stark setting by Robert Innes Hopkins that moves from the garden in New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, to the local tavern, the snowbound fields and Shakespeare’s panelled bedroom.

The starving girl (Michelle Tate) is seduced by Shakespeare’s old gardener (John McEnery) then betrayed by the gardener’s puritanical son (Alex Price). In one of Bond’s classic images, the girl is seen burnt and bound on a gibbet while Stewart sits frozen on a bench below.

Stewart’s first performance in this role was in modern dress. Here, the costuming is loosely Jacobean, and he cuts a sombre, imposing but also cruelly ambiguous figure; what is he thinking? We don’t know, because he’s forgotten what he’s feeling.

In sharp contrast, the impatient instigator of the land enclosures, William Combe, erupts with a fine, self-confident flourish from Matthew Marsh (replacing Jason Watkins at Chichester). And there are bustling, colourful performances from Ellie Haddington as the gardener’s wife and Kieron Jecchinis as a local yokel.

It’s a stark and vivid play, struck with fragments of King Lear, amounting to a melancholic allegory of an artist’s impotence when the chips are down and the world has turned against its weakest citizens. Stewart’s Shakespeare is enclosed, too, in his own garden hedge, but finds a sort of spiritual exhalation in the snowbound fields.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from April 2010, and this production's premiere in the Chichester Minerva.

Who'd have thought it - Edward Bond at Chichester? You won't see a less likely combination until Placido Domingo sings Aida at the Albert Hall with a cast of thousands.

Bond's take on the last days of Shakespeare's life looks at the playwright as he comes to terms with his failing powers as a writer and his need to ensure an income while he waits for his inevitable death. It's a bold set-up, and Shakespeare devotees may well be unhappy at the way Bond portrays the Bard casually allowing men to be thrown off their land while he frantically tries to keep his money intact and his unhappy wife from having any of it.

But then, “everything's about money” as Combe, the wealthy landowner puts it. Shakespeare’s deal with Combe is a focal point of the play, the agreement having a knock-on effect on the local population. While Angus Jackson's production doesn't skirt over these issues, this is less of a political rant that it might have been.

While there's some very Brechtian discourse about agrarian economics, this is not a particularly didactic text. There are plenty of swipes about the iniquity of driving poor shareholders from their smallholdings but this not about simple economics. There's more of a Chekhovian feel as Shakespeare comes to terms with his failing powers and the deadening effect of the family around him.

As Shakespeare, Patrick Stewart has the slow, measured talk of a man who has seen life and has little more to say, either in speech or in his writing. There's a hint of sardonic smile playing around his lips as if thinking that life is a huge joke. It’s a wonderful, low-key, world-weary performance. The only speech of any real anger is a rant about the cruelty of Elizabethan London, sentiments that sit oddly with a man who produced Titus Andronicus and whose work is spattered with blood-sport references.

There’s some strong support: Richard McCabe's Ben Jonson shamelessly steals his one scene and Alex Price's young man burns with anger. There's an excellent Combe from Jason Watkins, he could easily be a pantomime villain but his every move is argued logically. There are some strange accents however. For a play set in Warwickshire, why does everyone speak in a west country burr?

This is a play that's never quite sure whether it's a critique of capitalism, an examination of what happens when the creative spark has gone, or an investigation of the dynamics of family life. It's a heady mix, but it does offer a rounded portrayal of Shakespeare, the man.

- Maxwell Cooter