Bartholomew Fair deserved a fair shot. And we’re not really complaining. We got to see a play by another of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and we saw a snapshot of life in London in Shakespeare’s own time. But this play by Ben Jonson at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) takes more effort than it’s worth.
In fairness, director Antoni Cimolino and the big cast did their best to make Bartholomew Fair as lively as possible. The actors scurried here and there, scolded and abused one another, sang and danced, and laughed loudly at their own jokes. There was plenty of groping and off-color humor.
But the play still isn’t that entertaining. It’s all a bit forced, like the names of the characters (like Littlewit, Winwife, Knockem, and Wasp, who was actually costumed like a wasp). At our performance, some of the audience gave up and left after intermission.
The play takes place in London on Bartholomew’s Day. John Littlewit (Matt Steinberg), a Puritan who has written a puppet play, is plotting to go to the wicked fair over the objections of his strict mother-in-law, Dame Purecraft (Brigit Wilson). Various friends and neighbors wander in and out, also intent on the fair; Littlewit encourages them to kiss and fondle his wife Win (Jennifer Paterson).
One of his friends is the well-to-do but dim-witted Bartholomew Cokes (Trent Pardy), who is planning to marry Grace Wellborn (Alana Hawley). Littlewit, a scribe, has drafted a marriage license for them. Cokes’s fiance is the ward of the local magistrate, Justice Overdo, who plans to go to the fair to scope out vice and crime. One of two men competing for the affections of Littlewit’s widowed mother-in-law is an unpleasantly joyless church elder named Zeal-of-the-Land Busy (Juan Chioran).
Littlewit occasionally makes plays on words, then boasts that he has made a “device.” This is unfortunately typical of the play’s humor. In the same vein, Cokes is noisily amused by the fact that his first name is Bartholomew, like the name of the feast-day and fair. Cokes’s manservant Humphrey Wasp (Brian Tree) has the thankless task of protecting him from his own foolishness; of all the generally good performances in Bartholomew Fair, we liked Brian Tree’s best.
There are plenty of villains and dubious people at the fair, including Joan Trash (Kelli Fox), a faux-cripple who sells gingerbread; Lantern Leatherhead (Cliff Saunders), who peddles cheap musical instruments and hobbyhorses and gives a puppet show. Most fantastic of all is a monstrously large seller of pork and ale named Ursla (Lucy Peacock); her tent is also the base of operations for pickpockets (who target Bartholomew Cokes), pimps, and whores.
This was our second attempt at appreciating an Elizabethan playwright besides Shakespeare. Several years ago, we tried the Stratford Festival’s Edward II, but even though we read Christopher Marlowe’s play before we went, we still had trouble following the story and staying focused on the performance. Bartholomew Fair wasn’t hard to follow. In fact, the language of the play seemed easier to understand than some plays by Shakespeare, who was prone to inverted sentence structure and long, complex clauses.
But our limited experience with Marlowe and Jonson simply confirms what people have known for hundreds of years: Shakespeare was in a class of his own. Ben Jonson’s characters are hardly more than caricatures; they don’t think deep thoughts, utter memorable epigrams, face great challenges, or wrestle with moral dilemmas.
And while Bartholomew Fair has a narrative, it barely has a plot. It’s as if the playwright didn’t really expect that his audience would be playing close attention. Jonson seems to have assumed that his audience wanted only to see cliched characters indulging their carnal urges, making asses of themselves, and getting their comeuppances.
We couldn’t help thinking that Bartholomew Fair was something of a prototype for the contemporary genre of gross-out teen sex comedies like American Pie and Superbad, which have essentially the same stock characters. These follow the same formula as Bartholomew Fair: sexually frustrated young people go to a party and hook up; a repressed young thing loses her inhibitions and learns the liberating joy of sex; the local puritan is exposed as a hypocrite; the local authorities are bumbling fools who end up getting some of their own medicine.
Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:
Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)
The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)
The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)
The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)
What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)
The musical West Side Story (see this post)