Monday, 8 November 2010

Red, Black and Ignorant and There Will Be More, Cock Tavern Theatre

The final two plays of the Cock Tavern's Edward Bond season are examples of the kinds of plays which either draw the audience member further into an engagement with the writer's extraordinary vision of the world or repel the audience member so much that they react with outrage or attack. Both are pieces for which the word uncompromising might have been invented, although both deserve respect for taking theatre and thought to places which stretch the art and the mind.

Red, Black and Ignorant
is the first play of Bond's enormous War Plays trilogy, first produced by the RSC in 1985 to critical displeasure but rather more successful in Alain Françon's Avignon Festival production of 1995. RB&I presents us with a charred male protagonist, named simply as Monster, who presents scenes of the life he didn't get to live (because of a nuclear war). A series of sketches illustrate the ways in which institutions – school, marriage, capitalism, the army – install an ideology into those within them which erodes and degrades their humanity. The final irony of the piece is that, even without the nuclear war, the Monster finds himself killed by a force within his own nuclear family.

Red, Black and Ignorant, with its short playlet-like scenes, reminds me of both Brecht (notably Fear and Misery in the Third Reich), the agit-prop drama of the 1970s (an era recounted brilliantly in Catherine Itzen's indispensable book Stages in the Revolution) and, at times, the absurdity of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Bond isn’t coy about the idea that the society he portrays ideologically brutalizes its inhabitants and forces them into situations in which the only choice is Hobson's. The play feels to me quite bitty and not altogether achieved but that doesn't strike me as a reason not to perform or see it – it looks forwards, as a set of notes and ideas for development, to both the second and third of the War Plays trilogy and, beyond that, to themes that haunt the last quarter century of his work. A production of it is the theatrical equivalent to those exhibitions which show the sketches and drawings of a major artist which went towards the development of more complete and achieved masterpieces; I was at times reminded of Goya's Distasters of War.  That said, the final scene of Red, Black and Ignorant – in which a boy soldier (Bond was writing about this phenomena long before the children dragged into wars in such countries as Sierra Leone and Uganda became a fashionable subject for bleeding heart liberals to kvetch about) faces with an appalling decision as to whether to kill a member of his own family or a neighbour - is one of the greatest scenes of Bond's career. The place of decision is a crossroads (the same ones at which Laius was murdered by Oedipus, no doubt) and here the play stakes its claim to a dramatic lineage old as theatre itself.

Red, Black and Ignorant
is also an essential document of its 1980s time, when the Greenham common anti-nuclear protests were at their height, the miners were being brutalized and Thatcherism was setting in motion a new kind of society in the UK, in which market values mattered more than people and sub-classes were deliberately created in order that those out of work were made to feel their own situation as a social crime against order (the Coalition's policies since election have simply been a reiteration of what was hammered into being then). I was involved in the anti-nuclear and Stop the City protests at the time, along with many others on what might loosely be called the anarcho-punk scene. Watching Red, Black and Ignorant, I was struck by how close Bond's worldview was to his contemporaries in such bands as Crass and Conflict; the lyrics to the song Bond's soldier sings as he is being dressed for war might have sat comfortably on the seminal Let the Tribe Increase album by The Mob.

A even less obvious comparison with Bond might be between the poetic language and striking, apocalyptic imagery which he puts in the mouths of his actors and the flashing images of the 19th century poet savant Rimbaud and his 20th century follower Bob Dylan – at times, Bond's words would fit happily in a song like A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall or an album like Highway 61 Revisited. I make this comparison to emphasise that Bond is not some lone voice at odds with the culture of his time but very much a part of a movement in literature, music and other arts which flourished in the 1960s and developed into the scenes of the early 80s and beyond.

As a gesture of solidarity with the season, Bond contributes a new play, There Will be More, produced in repertory with RB&I but with different actors and director. Anyone who expected Bond to have matured and calmed down by his mid-70s (anyone who doesn’t know his work very well, that is) would surely be appalled by the feast of horror that is There Will Be More and boy were some of the knee-jerkers who review for the broadsheets bemused, angry and dismissive by turn of the new play.

It is easy to spot the Greek lineage of There Will Be More. In the first scene, an army officer's wife murders his twin sons (one is so flinch-conditioned by Bond's reputation that the sight of a baby on stage immediately makes on fear for the worst) and is raped in return by her raging husband; we are in Medea territory, clearly. This first scene – 20 minutes of odd social comedy mixed (like blood and tonic) with extreme violence – seems to be an odd take on the upper class social comedies of Rattigan or Coward (Hands Around the Throat rather than Hands Across the Sea).  After this (and a provocatively placed interval), we shudder forwards 18 years to when the wife escapes from the lunatic asylum she has been banished to in order to confront both her husband (whose careerism was somewhat hampered by her act) and one of the twin sons born of the rape (the other is fighting in an Orwellian constant war somewhere). The three characters then set about recriminating and destroying one another in scenes which reminded me of Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home sleeve note – "…divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes/subtracted by people constantly torturing each

I've made the Dylan comparison twice now in this blog as I believe that we might gain something from comparing what both artists have been doing in the last few decades of their careers. Both have taken stock of a rather frustrated 1980s and then re-consolidated their voices by going back to the roots of what they are doing – Dylan in old blues and folk songs, Bond in the plays of the Greeks and Shakespeare.

There Will Be More re-imagines elements of Euripides (and Sophocles) into a vision of a contemporary family destroying itself from within. Johnson, Bond's Jason in There Will Be More, is so fixated on his own career in the services and desire for his wife as sexual object that he has no tools with which to understand their situation, resorting to the only tool he knows how to use and wielding it in what used to be sickly and euphemistically referred to as "assault with a friendly weapon" (we might compare the militaristic term "friendly fire").  His mad wife Dea, Bond's Medea, has no insight into why she committed her double filicide and simply blames it on her husband ("you wanted me to" she accuses). If any people ever were lost in a cloud of unknowing, it is this pair.

At the beginning of scene two, she has returned to the family home (rather like zombies or unquiet ghosts in the horror genre return to the places they once inhabited after their deaths), seemingly hoping to settle into the old routine; astonishingly, Johnson is willing to let her as long as his conjugal rights are upheld. Johnson seems to have an absolutely authentic though blind and desperate desire for his wife, a desire which she sets her will against him achieving. Their marriage is like that of two people butting heads, neither of whom ever gets any sense knocked into them. Pity their son Oliver, confined to the house and judged wanting next to his absent, warrior twin: his father wishes to withhold the truth of his mother's identity in order to protect him, his mother wishes to rip his illusions rudely away. More violence follows as well as a strange, appalling, moving and very murky seduction of the son by the mother in which the sleepwalking off-spring is fellated by his Mum in a strange, Oedipal twist. It is notable here that it is the mother that kills the father, as if the Oedipus complex was a set-up designed to indoctrinate the child with guilt. The mother is devouring and the father is controlling – the terrible parents of primal myth lour over the household; it is no wonder that the child, like so many of our youth, clings steadfastly onto a blade he carries with him. In one way, the play can be seen as a reflection on the problem of youth knife crime; it is this but also so much more – no more rational a work than Goya's mighty painting Saturn Devours his Children, which looking back was an entirely justified response to the violence the artist saw around him but which also has a timeless quality.

Euripides, Goya, Shakespeare, Dylan – these are some of the names that flash through my mind when encountering a Bond play; There Will Be More is no less complex and knotty a work of art than any of these at their best. This is not to say that the work is meaningless or merely surreal – but the discomforting and destabilising affect of the play is more to the point than any moral lesson we might attempt to garner from it. One could say that it would be a tiresome fool who came to us suggesting that it might be a better world if it did not involve adults destroying each other and their children for their own psycho-sexual power-game gratifications. Yes, surely we all believe that it would be. "Why then," Bond's plays with a child-like impertinence ask, "is it not that better place?" Unless we confront the most terrible mirrors showing us of the times we live in and how things all too often are, only one thing is certain: there will indeed be more.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Under Room and The Fool, Cock Tavern Theatre

The middle pair of plays in the Cock Tavern's Edward Bond season are very different pieces, one a chamber piece written in 2005 (and now receiving its London premier), the other an epic play first performed by at the Royal Court in 1975. Seeing them close together allows one to focus on how Bond's writing had developed in the intervening period and how he had, by the time of the chronologically latter play incorporated within his dramaturgy what I can only describe as a performed self-consciousness as to what the drama is (what Drama itself is, Bond would say).

The smaller play is The Under Room, and was performed in the cellar of the pub theatre, a location reached by going upstairs, through the regular theatre space and down again into an under room throbbing with the sound of a generator, a rectangular space with low ceilings. On the night I saw the play (the first performance of this production) the cast of The Fool with Bond himself sat directing them were rehearsing as we passed, a weirdly ghostly and haunting scene in an of itself. A complete naïf might have asked "what are they doing?" and then might, with some thought, have found the answer to that downstairs in The Under Room.

The Under Room, like most late Bond plays, is set in a dystopia which is easily believable and which would be arrived at quite quickly should a further financial collapse hit the West's economy. A police state runs Britain and, in an Orwellian act terrifying in its simplicity, allows itself to summarily shoot anyone shoplifting as the crime has been renamed "shop-looting". The story concerns one shop-looter who hides in the basement of a single woman's home and is discovered by her. The singleton, Joan, is extremely leery of the stranger at first but gradually gets drawn into his story. His is a non-European whose past has involved being a boy-soldier, whose first killing for the army who kidnapped him was one of his own parents. The stranger embroils Joan in his situation, involving her in the shady deal his is trying to pull of with a treacherous black-marketer named Jack. Jack is supposed to get the stranger a passport and a way out of the UK but instead rips off his money and blackmails Joan to find more. The stranger's presence in both Jack and Joan's life reveals them.

I structure this last sentence in the way I have so that I can get into talking about the play's central innovation – the stranger is represented by a dummy, his lines being spoken by an actor who stands to the side of the action. This simple device makes what could have been simply a representation of a dramatic situation into a way of thinking about what we do when we represent dramatic situations. Joan and Jack are revealed, they and we find out who they are by their interaction with this effigy. Of course, all dramatic characters are effigies or dummies and the dramas we watch them perform reveal the character of the other figures in the drama. There is something else though – the audience as well is pretending that these characters are real in order to find out something about themselves through the drama: Bond is conscious of the Greek beginnings of dramatic theatre, its coincidence with the beginnings of democratic society and citizenship and the imperative to "Know Thyself".  The dramatic process towards the somewhat ironic ending of The Under Room allows Joan and Jack to find out that she is a person that wanted to help the stranger for rather selfish reasons  - as an end to her singleton existence becoming a couple running away together – whereas Jack is someone who, when called to quit his low down ways and attempt make a positive contribution world with the stranger, finds himself drawn to the stranger's violently unexpected offer. Yet Jack doesn't get the chance to do this, as Joan has ripped the dummy to pieces once she finds herself rejected.

There seems to me to be a mordant critique of contemporary drama built into this. Joan's liberal selfishness, in which motives are more to do with personal wishes and ownership of the other, destroys the opportunity for Jack to change. One of the things this suggests to me is that contemporary drama, in concentrating on a liberal sentiment which demands that the "victims" of the present system be given to them as personal projects, decimates a more immediate drama which might affect a change in the aggressors and the victims themselves. It is certainly true that much of the liberal, soul-searching drama we see points towards liberal consciousness raising amongst the already-liberal middle-classes. Bond's rather caustic suggestion is that these liberals will, rather than give up their hold on the puppet strings of the victimized classes, align themselves with the extreme right and become victimizers themselves.

This could be seen as a rather despairing vision. In his programme note on Hope, Bond writes "The hope is in the audience." The very process of watching The Under Room might change an individual, or at least get them to take a good, hard look at themselves. Maybe that's hoping too much, although I can affirm that it got me feeling and thinking…

The Fool is as epic as The Under Room is condensed; it's concern is with the producer of art in society whereas, for me, The Under Room is concerned with the audience. The play tells, in eight scenes, the story of the 19th century peasant poet John Clare, staging his fringe involvement with the rural protest movement against land enclosures. The land enclosure theme, the central role given to a "great British writer" and the subtitle, Scenes of Bread and Love, show The Fool to be somewhat of a companion piece to Bond's Shakespeare play Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death; Clare's own position as a "nobody" elevated by his talent into the world of the gentry and ruling class make his position somewhat analogous to a Shakespearean fool. Bond directed the Cock Tavern production himself (replacing the advertised director) and did a brilliant job of making this huge play work in the small, pub theatre space; it is an irony that his programme note also includes a satirical pop at the National Theatre, who wanted to do The Fool in the Olivier Theatre but were refused by Bond with a curt
‘You cannot do My Fair Lady one day and Macbeth the next: you cannot be Van Gogh one day and paint green-faced oriental ladies the next. You have to choose, and if you don’t what you do chooses you’. (Saunders, 2004)
The Fool is a intricately patterned play. Clare is shown as a player in a class struggle, contrasted and compared with other players (notably the agitator Darkie) and shown in antagonism with his class enemies, who are ironically also his patrons and benefactors. It is significant, for Bond as a stage writer himself and for a comparison with Bingo, that the first time we see Clare he is taking part in a Mummers play performed for the local Lord of the Manor and his preening houseguests (perhaps this is analogous to Bond's early involvement with productions of his plays at the Royal Court, National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare company). There is a sense within the play that people are locked into their class positions, that they cannot leave them behind nor see beyond them – it is perhaps the most self-consciously Marxist of Bond's plays in terms of how its structure stages the class struggle. This might be problematic in that the play may box in its audience – yet the play is part of not the completion of a process. It is right that Bond on occasion provokes us into thinking about how at liberty a person can be in a class society. He offers a powerful rebuttal of the idea that a person can, in such an environment, be in charge of their own destiny.

The play includes two of Bond's most powerful scenes. In one, the rioting rural workers come across a country parson – an apologist for the ruling class – and proceed to strip him of his finery; when he is naked, they weep as they pluck at his well-fed flesh, mourning that its plenty has been at the expense of them and their children. The scene is striking and unforgettable – the parson (not a sympathetic character) is vulnerable and almost Christ-like in his suffering but his attackers maintain an innocence and child-like quality, as if the Church's Jesus-surrogate were being suffered to come unto the children. There's also a sense in which the scene links to those zombie films, for example Andrea Bianchi's Burial Ground or Romero's Land of the Dead, in which the zombies are used to symbolize the exploitation and revolt of the proletariat against their class oppressors, as Bond's worker's come close to wrenching the parson's flesh from his bones.

The other great scene – as great a scene as has ever been written for the theatre – has Clare taking the air with his upper class patrons in Hyde Park where a vicious boxing match happens to be taking place. The boxers are two prime examples of the victims of English Imperialism – an African and an Irishman – and the alternation of focus between Clare and his literary friends and the participants in the boxing match creates a split of focus which (via their on-stage proximity) encourages an audience  to see the connection between the two groups and their ostensibly dissimilar activities.

Bond's large scale dramas often deal in the on-stage relationships between groups, relationships which stage the economic and social relationships within the societies he is writing about. The Cock Tavern production shows that Bond, even in such a tiny performing space, is adept at grouping his actors in meaningful constellations. The production gives the lie to the idea that Bond is not a good director for his work; here, he shows that he has reached a level of impressive understanding of the stage space and its dynamics, where space and communication consummate a meaningful relationship. That we are unlikely to see him showing us what space we can do on a large scale is a terrible loss for anyone interested in theatre in the UK.

Saunders, G. (2004). 'Edward Bond and the Celebrity of Exile'. Theatre Research International , 29, pp. 256–266.