Shakespeare's Globe has struggled to find playwrights who can compete with the Bard and use its extraordinary open air stage to best advantage. Howard Brenton's In Extremis -- the story of Abelard and Heloise -- proved popular and was revived for a second season, but I didn't like it. Plays about the Chartists and Tom Paine worked quite well but both reminded me of historical pageants, with an excess of characters and too many scenes in different times and places. Che Walker's The Frontline was chaotic and confusing.
This zesty production of Bedlam delivers the goods and works well on the Globe stage. The audience loved the show and went away into the night beaming with approval, and I found it enjoyable from start to finish. But that was largely thanks to the director Jessica Swale, who has conjured up a a colourful 18th century romp that masks the inadequacies of Nell Leyshon's script. I was very enthusiastic about the same director's production of The Rivals a few months ago, and this production has the same kind of fizz. The key to performance at the Globe is establishing an initial rapport with the audience, and the use of genuine 18th century street ballads to start the play forges an instant bond between spectators and performers. Just occasionally the audience participation (boos for the villain and cheers for the hero) tends to get out of hand, turning the experience into too much of a pantomime. But this is a crowd-pleaser with some excellent performances. Ella Smith -- large and lovely -- is a wonderful Hogarthian gin-seller who seems to have been born to act on this particular stage. All credit to Nell Leyshon for tracking down the original songs at Cecil Sharp House and to composer Olly Fox for creating the music.
Unfortunately it is the incidental street scenes -- the ballads, the gin-selling and the rough music of Georgian London -- which work the best. Leyshon's writing struggles to create convincing plot and character, and her feeling for the period doesn't go deep enough to parody its style successfully. She doesn't settle on a consistent idiom or tone, leaving the language to wobble between the 18th century and the 21st. The language she uses lacks the crisp period cadences of Alan Bennett's The Madness of King George, and her story is very soft-edged by comparison. Not all the characters seem to be acting in the same play; while Dr Maynard (Sam Cheadle) is completely serious, other parts seem to have been borrowed from a Carry On film. The story of May, a beautiful country girl who ends up in the asylum when her beloved Billy is taken away to sea and she loses her reason, is told without real narrative twists and turns. When Billy turns up at Bedlam to rescue her, the play doesn't explain how he got there. Meanwhile the story of the poet Laurence who falls in love with May is meant to be funny but ends up as mere slapstick because Leyshon's writing lacks the plotting ingenuity that is needed to deliver either high comedy or farce.
Some critics have found fault with a play that turns such grim material as the story of an 18th century lunatic asylum into comedy; I don't share the view that madness can't be made amusing (Bennett shows how it's done) but the treatment has to be hard-edged and unflinching. Comedy can be very cruel (think of the treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night) and can deal with the grimmest subjects, but what it should steer clear of is mushy sentimentality. Unfortunately this play doesn't avoid that pitfall, especially in its ending. Nor does it deliver any serious insights into madness and the 18th century. I never saw the National Theatre's brilliant production of Coram Boy, about the early years of London's Foundling Hospital, but I suspect it was much better in its storytelling than Bedlam. Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera also flashed into my mind; Brecht had his faults, but there were moments during this play when I longed for his uncompromising view of history and the understanding that life doesn't always have a happy ending.
My suggestion for the Globe is that it should stop commissioning new plays and try putting on Brecht, who really knew how to write hard-edged historical drama. Or Dominic Dromgoole could try to negotiate the rights to revive Dunsinane, a brilliant sequel to Macbeth by David Greig written for the RSC, which had an all-too-short run earlier this year at the Hampstead Theatre, did a brief tour in Scotland, then disappeared.