Peter Barnes's new play Jubilee tells the story of how in 1769 the distinguished actor David Garrick organised a celebration at Stratford-upon-Avon to mark the bicentenary of Shakespeare's birth - five years late! This festival began the transformation of Stratford from sleepy market town to busy tourist centre and of Shakespeare from minor poet to major money-spinner.
As you would expect from a writer like Barnes and a director like Gregory Doran, this is no simple narrative but a biting satire using a kaleidoscope of theatrical styles. It's very funny indeed as it sends up everyone who exploits Shakespeare for commercial gain - the council and citizens of Stratford, theatre directors, actors and academics - but reserves its most savage barbs for theatre managers and critics. On a more profound level, though this play is never serious for long, Barnes challenges the cult of the artist and suggests that the celebrity of the playwright can distract attention from the quality of the work.
There are plenty, perhaps too many, theatrical in-jokes which may puzzle some overseas visitors. Garrick is visited in a dream by the three former directors of the RSC - Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn and Mr (I-never-compromised-for-empty-titles) Terry Hands. Now if you recognise these three, know something about their personal characteristics and directorial style ("God, this stage is as dimly lit as one of your productions, Terry") then this scene is absolutely hilarious. But if you don't, it falls a bit flat - a point underlined when their song and dance routine at the end brought half the house down.
The actors have a ball. Kelly Hunter as Garrick's wife is enchanting and deeply moving. Carol Macready, as the brothel-keeper who takes her girls up to Stratford for the festival, performs an hilarious and mildly pornographic version of the death of Cleopatra - with two asps! Owen Sharpe presents a ridiculous and wickedly accurate picture of James Boswell who, when drunk, gets wrapped up as a parcel and posted back to Scotland.
But it's on Nicholas Woodeson, as David Garrick, that the play really depends, and he's good enough to ensure a successful evening. At times virtuoso - as when he presents five Shakespearean kings in 50 seconds - at others moving, he is more than capable of doing what's required. If he'd been that mite bit more dynamic or charismatic, it would have perhaps disturbed the fine balance of hilarity and satire, energy and sentiment, criticism and celebration which makes this such an enjoyable evening in the theatre.
Jubilee opened at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19 July 2001 (previews from 12 July) and continues there in repertory until 13 October 2001.