“The Bread and the Beer” by Tristan Bernays

at Underbelly, Cowgate, Wednesday 14th August 2013

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

I haven’t seen anything on the publicity for Tristan Bernays’s The Bread and the Beer that suggests this is a piece attempting to understand English identity, but in the context of other shows considering the act of the Union, it comes across as a lone voice considering England specifically. A raging, passionate poem-come-ballad, it creates and subverts mythologies, placing them in the modern world like a one-man Jerusalem.

This tale is of John Barleycorn, a legendary figure in this throbbing, romanticised version of London. He lives underground, is the centre of any party, and can drink others out of house and home. In this story, two clueless men find him in his home before he takes them out and creates a throng of people marching down the streets of London partying. They reclaim the city, taking it back from the police.

The writing mimics lore of old, lilting at times and aggressive at others, relentlessly driving forward to the rhymes at the end of each line. A poetic, lofty style mingles with vulgarities and modern idioms to create a jarring, unique tone which feels particularly English. Occasionally, it slips out of storytelling mode to clarify a point or replay a scene.

Bernays recounts the tale to us, insistent that he is not John Barleycorn but allowing glimmers of this powerful figure to shine through the whites of his eyes. He begins casually enough, but as the party on the streets grows, a violence creeps in as Tim McQuillen-Wright’s simple set gets thrown around, a pool cue hurtling in one direction while a bar stool crashes to the ground in another. Like his subjects he becomes inebriated, but his tipple is words, not lager.

The Bread and the Beer is a seductive, earthy myth for modern times told with eloquence and passion. Sophie Larsmon’s direction brings out some of the darker aspects of English masculinity but at the same time acknowledges its uniqueness, putting myth and storytelling back into a communal experience. By letting loose and relinquishing “British politeness”, John Barleycorn reminds us what it’s like to have a properly good time. Now, someone get me a beer.

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