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.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your intelligent, informative and well informed piece on 'Red Black and Ignorant' and 'There Will Be More'. As a cast member it has been extremely satisfying working with Bond on one of his plays but some of the reviews have left me wondering if he is an actor's writer and that perhaps his work has too many layers for your average audience to really connect with or understand - in RBI one reviewer didn't understand who the Monster was for half the play despite his own introduction and his explanation of what the play is about. I realise you are a director and so not a typical audience member but it was refreshing to read your comparisons with Dylan,Crass,The Mob and Goya. I too was a child of the 80's perhaps that is why I enjoy Bond's work so much and can see the relevance in it today. I look forward to future blogs.

  2. Hi

    Many thanks for your comment. I have personally been quite depressed by the quality of the reviewing of the season by the mainstream critics, although their lack of insight and empathy with Bond's work should have come as little surprise to anyone. I imagine that most audiences got more than those individuals from attending the plays...