Veins of Pure Gold in Bartholomew Fair

The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Bartholomew Fair resembles a lump of base metal with veins of pure gold running through it - most of them stemming from Alan Howard's creation of the wondering boy, Bartholomew Cokes, all innocence and directness, untainted by prejudice, bigotry, or the convolutions of his super ego, enjoying every minute, every person, object, experience for itself.

Everyone else descries for a purpose, for gain, lust, self-gratification, revenge, reputation.

To show the timeless universality of human folly - "What petty things they are, wee wonder at? Like children, that esteeme every trifle ... What difference betweene us and them? But that we are fooles, cockscombes, at a higher rate?" the programme quotes from an early Fifteenth Century text - the director, Terry Hands, casts off Jacobean dress and manners, and plucks reference and flummery from every century since.

Bartholomew Fair

So his Bartholomew looks like an overgrown Regency child in a suit of apricot silk, his Littlewit a pantomime proctor in pin-stripe Bermuda shorts; Winwife is elegant in a cream suit and raspberry ruffled shirt that would produce admiring stares in any discotheque.

The same with props: Ben Jonson might have recognised the tattered booths and the gingerbread men, but he'd have had some characteristically ill-natured things to say about the old motor car dolled up with crimson curtains and serving as a mobile brothel, or the supermarket trolleys and the beat group that turned up at the fair.

It's a splendid idea, and everyone works away at it like mad, but it only illuminates certain sections of the text. The rest remains stodgy fair, as though the yeast, the germ of the idea, has failed to penetrate and make it rise.

The best comes at the end, when langour and darkness fall on the fair, the fairy lights come on, and the puppet play is presented with a skill, spontaneous humour, and goodwill that catches the audience up into Bartholomew's own delight with the magic of it all.

Then Sebastian Shaw's peevish Justice Overdo, John Kane's sweet-and-sour Ezekiel, and, notably Norman Rodway's firm, flashing Quar'lous, among others, come out on top of their roles to make a joyous ending.

Glasgow Herald, 3.11.1969.