It must be the end of summer, because here goes my final trip to Shakespeare's Globe for this year. Nell Leyshon's Bedlam is the second new commission in the "Kings and Rogues" season, and although there's nobody who thinks he's the king, there's plenty of rogues, none more so than Dr. Carew (Jason Baughan,) in charge of the Bethlem Hospital. The infamous insane asylum whose name became a byword for chaos has centuries' worth of history (and indeed a mental hospital by that name still exists, and is where the playwright did much of her research) and Leyshon, partly inspired by Hogarth's "Rake's Progress," has chosen to set the play in the 18th Century, it's most notorious time, when visitors could pay a penny on Sundays to walk around and laugh at the insane.
Quite unrelated to its subject matter, much of Bedlam's publicity has revolved around the fact that it's a historic first: The first play by a woman ever to be performed in this or any incarnation of the Globe. As well as the inevitable self-referential line about this, Leyshon uses the opportunity to focus on how women are treated in particular. There are a couple of male inmates but our focus is on the females: May (Rose Leslie) is the newest arrival, distracted after her boyfriend left her, and news of her beauty soon attracts some unpleasant attention on visiting days. Jade Williams brings her reliably sharp comic timing to Nancy, a former prostitute who's found religion in a big way. The most telling storyline about misogyny though must be Stella's (Lorna Stuart,) in the madhouse after giving birth and having her baby taken away from her, when the father visits Bedlam he refuses to acknowledge her.
What a plot summary doesn't give away though is the fact that for the most part this is an uproarious comedy, tailored well to the Globe's unique environment. The humour goes from slapstick, to wit, to viciously misogynistic comments that make the audience audibly uncomfortable, while the setting gives the perfect excuse to indulge the Globe's favourite pastime of depositing bodily fluids over the groundlings. One audience member gets dragged onstage to be admitted to the hospital, although he was rather blatantly a plant - I don't know whether this is always the case or, tonight being press night, they'd given themselves a way of ensuring nothing went wrong. It's also a good ensemble piece, with many cast members from the Henry IV plays being rewarded with more scene-stealing roles here. So Sam Crane is a fey poet, while cute Joseph Timms gets some good scenes as Carew's son. A new addition is Ella Smith, who seems to have cornered the market in "sexy larger lady" roles, and here pushes her gin cart around the stage, causing more madness than there was already.
Overall Jessica Swale's production is very entertaining but a bit unfocused, and when the broad comedy gives way to more reflective scenes, only to return abruptly, it's the show itself that's schizophrenic, the wild changes of tone quite distracting. It's also a bit too long and suffers from a case of multiple ending syndrome, but for the most part it's good bawdy fun.
Bedlam by Nell Leyshon is in repertory until the 1st of October at Shakespeare's Globe.