Sunday, 9 May 2010

Bond asks the nagging questions

Another encounter with a play about an artist, as I took a pilgrimage to Chichester to see the production of Edward Bond's 1973 play Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death. On the surface, this is a speculative bio-play concerning the last years of William Shakespeare, our National poet and generally considered to be, as Nick Hutchison writes in the programme,
"…the greatest playwright of all time, the greatest love poet, whose plays have come to represent all that is best in human artistic endeavour…" [1]

Bond's play begins with Shakespeare sitting in a garden contemplating a sheet of paper but it is neither a page from a script nor a poem but rather a reckoning of the amount he makes from the rents he makes from some sitting tenants on some local common fields. We soon learn that a local businessman, William Combe, is set on enclosing the land and Shakespeare wants assurances that his income will be maintained. Combe offers to compensate Shakespeare for any losses as long as Shakespeare agrees not to oppose the enclosures. In the first half of the play, alongside this business story, there is a subplot involving a young homeless woman who is at first whipped for disobeying the laws on vagrancy and then hung for setting some fires in Stratford-upon-Avon. By the end of the first part, we understand that Shakespeare retired to Stratford for rest and contemplation (buying New Place for this purpose) but is unable to stop thinking about the suffering he has seen in London and now continues to see in his Warwickshire hide-out. For most of the three scenes of Part One Shakespeare is reticent in his speech, but at the end of the Act he busts forth with an elongated speech envisioning a London awash with cruelty and crime.

The involvement of Shakespeare in the enclosures at the nearby village of Welcombe are a historical fact; Bond (in a 1973 note to the play [2]) references E K Chambers' 2 Volume William Shakespeare as a source for documentation and commentary. Despite this (and other assertions of this truth in the programme), some critics write as if this episode in Shakespeare's life is Bond's suggestion. Bond's play can cause extreme reactions from critics, but given that the play on the whole presents the bard as a humane and very deep thinker troubled by his own social situation, I am at a bit of a loss to understand why anyone should be offended by the portrait.

Of course, by the end of the play we have seen Shakespeare question his legacy as an artist (he continually asks himself "Was anything done?") and ends up taking poison and committing suicide, unable to find a way out of his despair at the world and some of his involvements in it (not only has his behaviour as a landlord been questionable, but he has neglected and alienated his wife and his younger daughter, Judith). Bond rather provocative wrote in 1973

'My account rather flatters Shakespeare. If he didn't end up the way shown in the play, then he was a reactionary blimp or some other fool. The only more charitable account is that he was unaware or senile.' [3]
Bond's view of Shakespeare as a man passionately concerned with social issues is borne out by any overview of the bard's work. In watching the play's scenes of a despairing Shakespeare wandering through a world in which judges condemn and hang homeless beggars, I couldn't help but think of Lear at the height of his "madness" – concerned in the storm for the "poor, naked wretches" and condemning judges as thieves (in Bingo, Combe is a magistrate). The play is asking important questions about a person's political and social role in the world, not merely an artist's role but every human's.  In Tony Coult's useful short book The Plays of Edward Bond, he quotes Albert Hunt (in a piece for New Society) accusing Bond of being someone who is
'…trapped by his own literary aspirations and has lost touch with the society he was trying to explain… it's not so much a question any longer of a "writer's theatre", as a theatre about writers.' [4]
Coult challenges this on the grounds that plays about artists are as valuable as plays about any other kind of worker (artists face the same social circumstances as anyone else) and also in that it is erroneous to assume that only artists enjoy plays about artists. I would agree with Coult here (I suppose I would say that, having written a number of plays about both fictional and historical artists in my time) but also add more about Bingo's positioning and impact as a theatre event.

Bingo came at a time when Bond was making inroads into the higher echelons of UK cultural life. After its premier at the Northcott in Exeter, it was performed at the Royal Court with John Gielgud as Shakespeare; soon after, Bond had work performed at the National Theatre, the RSC and the Royal Opera. Bingo was part of an ongoing project on his part to ask the most important questions about his society in those cultural institutions that were held to be the most prestigious. I had thought about using the word "infiltrate" in the previous but I realise that this would sound as if Bond was somehow coming from somewhere else and attacking a tradition; this is wrong, as Bond is very much the inheritor of the tradition of English drama and literature which through the past 500+ years has asked the pertinent questions. In a way, Bingo is analogous to Blake's epic poem Milton, in which the bard of the civil war returns to earth to separate what was visionary in his life and work from what was error.  Bond is correcting, building on and continuing Shakespeare's work.

Some critics dismiss Bond as a doctrinaire Marxist whose plays are mere propaganda for the cause. This does him an injustice, as it should be quite clear to any intelligent and sensitive audience member at Bingo that this is the work of a man who is struggling, like the play's protagonist, to understand his social situation. Bond shows Combe as a thief of land and shows the rebellion of a group of locals who dig up the enclosures, hoping to reverse the process; theirs is a revolt which has a vision of a better world at its centre (Christian in its symbolism, reminiscent of the writings of Winstanley) but which uses violence in achieving its aims, a violence which has unfortunate effects on innocent bystanders. Bond shows this struggle in all its complexity, portraying the leader of the rebels as a preaching, humourless puritan and giving Combe a speech which any revolutionary must struggle to answer:

'I live in the real world and try to make it work. There's nothing more moral than that. But you live in a world of dreams! What happens when you wake up? You find that real people can't live in your dreams. They don't fit, they're not good or sane or noble enough. So you turn to common violence and begin to destroy them.' [5]
In the last scene of the play, Combe and the leader of the protest are still arguing, in Shakespeare's bedroom. Shakespeare sits between them as they  accuse and counter-accuse, and as he does so he takes some poison. This is an extraordinary moment, capable of being taken in multi-dimensional ways. In one way, Bond is killing off Shakespeare here, asserting that a man who lived 400+ years ago isn't going to be able to help us sort out the social difficulties that face us. The character is expressing a need which many of us might feel, a need to hide in death rather than face historical or class problems. Or perhaps the sugar-coated poison is (as my companion on my trip to Chichester – Ben Francis – suggested to me after the performance) the false culture which takes us away from the real arguments of our lives. It was at this moment in Bingo I realised what a remarkable achievement the play is, one which hands to me as an audience member the question "Was anything done?", to ask myself about my life in a world which isn't very much different, in its injustices, brutality and social structure, to the one portrayed in the play. Was the Iraq invasion anything more than Western interests enclosing land in the middle east?

At the centre of the play's questioning is a problem of property which we must all face. Our main political parties encourage owner-occupation as the preferred living arrangement, and I couldn't help wondering as I was watching the play how many of our wealthy liberal writers have second properties on which they collect rent? I remember a few years ago, when I got a small inheritance, someone advising me that the best investment would be to buy to let (I did not follow this advice); friends of mine have been forced to move when their landlord needed to sell the home they were living in. The Shakespeare of Bingo faces a very current problem.

Bond's attempt to do ask the questions of our age our big arts institutions came to a bad end in the mid-80s, and his plays since then have been premiered either in a Theatre-in-Education environment in the UK or in Paris at the Théâtre National de Colline. Bond has a famous, ongoing feud with our National Theatre but the performance of Bingo at Chichester made it clear to me how important his voice is to the life of our mainstream drama; his plays ask the challenging questions and we do something when we confront them which is valuable to us. 

The production at Chichester, by Angus Jackson, is superb. Patrick Stewart (whose desire to play the role again instigated the production) is an intelligent, passionate and compelling Shakespeare, Ellie Haddington is beyond moving as the Old Woman who serves as his housekeeper and confidante and the rest of the cast give outstanding performances. Bond's plays are tricky to get right (I didn't much like the recent revival of The Sea in the West End) but here the full effect of his writing plays out. The whole experience is one I won't be forgetting in a hurry, and the central question will continue to nag.

[1] Hutchison, Nick 'Scenes of Money and Death' in Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death (Chichester Festival Theatre programme, 2010)
[2] Bond, Edward Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death (Methuen, 1974), p.xv
[3] Ibid., p.vii
[4] Coult, Tony The Plays of Edward Bond (Methuen, 1977), p.19
[5] Bond, p.36

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