Friday, 1 October 2010

The Pope's Wedding and Olly's Prison, Cock Tavern Theatre

The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn is currently producing a season of the plays of Edward Bond, one play representing each of the decades in which he has been writing since the 1960s. It offers a marvellous opportunity to see plays that are all too rarely performed on English stages, an opportunity made more vital by the fact that the first two plays, Olly's Prison and The Pope's Wedding, have been produced to the very highest standards.

These two plays share some important similarities (both, for example, deal with working class lives contemporary to their composition) as well as showing that Bond can write in very different registers. The Pope's Wedding, Bond's first professionally produced play (1962) is a brooding, minutely detailed and ostensibly naturalistic account of the doomed relationship between a young rural worker, Scopey, and an old outcast, Allen, who live in the same Essex town; it's affect on me was to sadden, producing an air of contemplative melancholia. Olly's Prison, originally a TV play (1992), tells an epic story of a man, Mike, who commits an appalling crime and then spends the next decade or so, in prison and out, coming to terms with what he has done; it's affect on me was both anxiety-inducing, adrenalin-producing and I emerged rather awe-struck and inspired by its reach. What the two plays in performance here have most strongly in common is that they take the audience into the heart of mysteries which are not solved within the play (Bond is never a glib writer) but that they have a solution feels important for myself as viewer, a feeling which has stayed with me long since seeing the plays. A number of (excellent) books have been written about the meaning of Bond's drama but I am not sure that its ability to affect the audience has been sufficiently emphasised. Bond's dramas, I would suggest, are not primarily a series of meaningful, enacted images to be "read" (although you can approach it like that) but rather living theatre experiences (Theatre Events, he calls them) to be involved in; processes undergone rather than processions gazed upon.

The Pope's Wedding is a measured play pace-wise, although never boring. It is also a structurally fragmented piece, being for most of the first half an immersion into the world of a group of working class lads (and a couple of lasses), casual labourers in rural Essex who spend their time moaning about being broke, getting drunk and smoking when they are not, engaging in mild yobbishness and play-acting antagonisms. Occasionally, punctuating the lads' scenes peripheral to this group, we get to meet, an old man, Allen, who lives alone in a ramshackle hut and whose only connection to the "main" story is that one of the girls who hangs out with the gang, Pat, does cleaning for him due to a promise made to her dead mother.

The main story focuses, after some time, on the individuation of one of the gang members, Scopey, who becomes a local sports-hero and wins Pat's hand in marriage. Throughout this first half, an audience could feel somewhat starved of a strong plot-line, although the antics of the lads are engaging enough and Allen offers the promise of mystery and development; we know the two "strands" must come together and both desire it (we want "something" to happen) and fear it (the lads might hurt Allen). This desire of the audience is answered in the second act but in a roundabout way. Scopey's relationship with Pat almost immediately collapses into domestic bickering; Scopey gradually takes over Pat's role of cleaner and cook to Allen and the old seems to fascinate the younger. The air of mystery about the old man is palpable – is he really Pat's father? what is the "work" he is doing with his piles of old newspapers? what does his part experience have to teach the younger man? Scopey pursues, in such a single-minded and dogged fashion that it becomes a monomania, the answers to these questions only to find out something terrible – the old man holds no secrets or knowledge at all, he's "just" a batty old man. By this point, Scopey has ruined his marriage and his position in his peer group, so he takes the only route which he now feels is available to him – he murders the old man and takes his place in the hut…

The sense of Scopey's disappointment is heartbreaking in performance. The audience has seen and, importantly, shared his frustration as part of a world which is going nowhere (that sense of the story not developing in Act One is a dramatic strategy) and ache for his relationship with the old man to be meaningful and enlightening. But it can't be – the old man is too far gone and Scopey hasn't the social skills to bring him back again. The sense of waste becomes palpable – you could say that the play conjures it up – and the final transformation of Scopey into Allen (a metamorphosis worthy of Ovid) is designed to leave the viewer with a palpable sense of frustration and sadness. What the play means is less important than that it does this, creates this feeling of dissatisfaction.  It opens a void which the audience member then has to fill. This all suggests to me that the play-event we are dealing with here is a kind of ceremony – the impossible ceremony of the title, The Pope's Wedding.

The Pope's Wedding is a social event to which we are invited in order to witness no one affirming a commitment to another, perhaps the impossibility of such a commitment; Olly's Prison is another kind of social ritual, a prison visit during which one watches the inmates realise that when they get out, they'll still be incarcerated. This has its own knock-on effect to the audience, as the implication is that we don't leave this play when we leave the theatre, the last line being

"Olly's prison. 'E'll never get out. We're all in it till we understand."
This kind of metatheatricality is apparent in the opening scene. The audience sits in silence whilst we watch the protagonist, Mike, trying to get some words out of a character (his daughter, Sheila) on stage who sits there in silence. The scene is long and testing but by the end of it, the play grips, which mirrors the protagonist's gripping hands on his daughter's throat. He murders her and both he and we spend the rest of the play trying to understand why this happened, what the implications are, what is going on after. Mike is sent to prison for a decade and spends a number of years in despair, before another horrific act propels him into attempting consciousness: a young prisoner hangs himself days before his release. By the end of the play, Mike has grasped that release from an actual prison is not an actual release from imprisonment, to which I'd add that coming out of a piece of theatre isn't actually emerging from the theatre; the play goes on all around us and we remain in it.

Near the end of Olly's Prison, a policeman named Frank, the former boyfriend of Mike's daughter, violently beats up the title character in order to frame Mike for the crime. It is worth emphasising that Frank does not do this because he is himself bad or corrupt; he does it because he is personally convinced that Mike is bad and corrupt. Here we see how a human being, one invested with social authority, can justify using violence against the innocent in order to protect the innocent. But Frank, ready to condemn another man, is not willing to face himself. Earlier in the play, when Frank comes in and sees that Mike has murdered Sheila, he's begins the process of telephoning the authorities when Mike offers him the flat. Frank stops dialling, takes Mike up on his offer and so does well, property-wise, out of the crime. Frank has himself become authority in the final scene, unable to face his own reality and so blaming Mike for everything. This is what Mike, and perhaps the audience, comes to "understand" at the end of the play: criminals are no worse than each of us, we all partake of the same daily bread, and any personal attempt to put oneself "above" criminals as an embodiment of the law makes one worse than them, not better.

About a week after seeing the play, I was watching an afternoon chat show which featured the policeman, PC David Rathband, who was blinded by Raoul Moat. In an odd and convoluted exchange with the host, the blind policeman said it takes a great effort for a human being to remain "good" but that Raoul Moat had been "born evil." It is almost as if PC Rathband is embodying Olly's Prison in his own being. I know of few other living dramatists who can so make one see the world through the prism of the theatre events they create. Then again, it wasn't contemporary dramatists that came to mind when I was watching it: it was Shakespeare, it was the Greek tragedians.

There are four more Bond plays in the coming season, and I will try to write down some thoughts on each – they'll probably be as disorganised and partially formed as the ones above but its important that the season doesn't go by without record, given that so few of the mainstream critics (or, for that matter, non-mainstream reviewers or theatre bloggers) have got themselves down to & written about these first two plays in the season. I'll leave you with the words of a critic who has, Simon Thomas (of MusicOMH):
Anyone serious about English Theatre of the last half century should think twice about missing these and the remaining productions.