Having seen Antoni Cimolino’s production of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair a few weeks ago, I find myself continuing to think about it. A rare play rarely played, Jonson’s comedy, like Shakespeare’s, offers its audience a serious vision of life in all its plenitude, letting the hot air out of everyone. Cimolino gives the play a marvelous interpretation, bringing it to life for our own time. After seeing the play, it was a shock to learn that the Stratford Festival production was the first performance in North America. Bartholomew Fair deserves to be much better known.
Bartholomew Fair was a yearly event in London, held from 1133 until 1855, when it finally came to an end. In Jonson’s day, it attracted large crowds of people from all walks of life to its four days of commerce and carnival, in Smithfield, a less desirable part of London.
Rather than a synopsis, available elsewhere, what interests and fascinates me about Bartholomew Fair is its vision of resolution. The play is stocked with cut-purses, prostitutes, nitwits and fools, wooers and wooed, sanctimonious Puritans and scheming characters of all types. Judge Adam Overdo, a justice of the peace, dons a disguise and infiltrates the fair to spy for himself on the lower echelons of society that he deals with daily in court, to understand them better, and to note “enormities” for prosecution in many cases. Yet Jonson reveals Overdo to be as false and hollow as all the other characters, that is to say, human. From high to low, none are without flaw and failing, all are put under satire’s cutting instrument. More than a morality play, the fullness and vitality of life are thoroughly explored and enjoyed, the delight of existence, all its antinomies opened to view, wisdom and delight. Tom Quarlous says to the Judge at the end, “Remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood! You have your frailty; forget your other name of Overdo and invite us all to supper.” In an act of acceptance and humility, rather than benevolence, at the end of the day and play, Judge Overdo invites everyone to dinner at his own home, all passion spent.
A marvelous production. Juan Chioran’s portrayal of the Puritan Zeal-of-the-Land Busy was brilliant. I would say one of the reasons the play probably fell into obscurity during the 17th century was Jonson’s scathing satire of the Puritans. Even if the theatres had not been closed, it would have been too hot to handle under Cromwell and so forth. I hope Antoni Cimolino’s revival of the Bartholomew Fair leads to more appreciation and other productions. Perhaps our time is one that can enjoy and hear Bartholomew Fair. The play deserves to be high in the canon of 17th century drama and is a refreshing change of pace from Shakespeare, while sharing some of his best qualities, especially the Elizabethan resolution of all orders, an impressively humane and gracious ending, one worth pondering.
Lucy Peacock’s Ursla the Pig-Woman, an enormously obese vendor of cooked pig, as well as a provider in her tent of other human wants, was outrageously funny at times, though a minor character. Having attended plays during most seasons at the Stratford Festival for the past decade, I couldn’t help but recall her in other performances, which I much preferred, though I suppose it is the role Jonson wrote. A tremendous cast, Cliff Saunders performance of Lantern Leatherhead’s puppet play of Hero and Leander was hysterically funny. He had me laughing almost to tears. A wonderful experience. A vision.