“Drama”, Edward Bond once said, “is not theatre”. There’s little theatricality in either of his two new plays, written for young people and commissioned by Theatre in Education company Big Brum. They are mercifully devoid of the cheap humour and tacked-on morality often employed in young people’s theatre; The Edge and The Broken Bowl are typical Bondian visions, depicting dysfunctional families that are both the products and architects of a broken society. These are urgent works, full of potent images and eloquent silence, that make for a stimulating and engaging audience experience.
In The Edge, a young man is about to go travelling, leaving behind a bad relationship with his mother. At the end of his last night out at home, he encounters an old, drunk man lying in the road. When the man follows him home and accuses him of a crime, the night really begins. Intergenerational conflict plays out, reflecting the progression and regression of the old and the young, and the debts owed to each by the other. Chris Cooper’s understated direction makes excellent use of the space to explore the past and the future, and Ceri Townsend’s austere design effectively communicates the idea of the home within a wider society.
Bond’s reverence towards the tragedians (his play The Woman is a version of Euripides’ Trojan Women) is evident in The Edge, which, as he notes in the programme, follows the three character tradition. Each line has a weighty that wouldn’t be out of place in classical drama, but these never seem unnatural in a contemporary setting.
The second play, The Broken Bowl, also has a familiar premise: a girl talks to an imaginary friend and her parents don’t know how to respond. But it quickly becomes obvious that Bond is doing something much more here, as we realise the family – subsisting on meagre rations of unidentifiable food – are living in a dystopian future, or a terrifying form of the present. It’s a disturbing and impassioned defence of the imagination and an exploration of power structures, which is admirably frank considering its young target audience.
The Edge is a slow production, deliberately so, that will benefit from further performances as the actors become more comfortable in their roles. The company’s acting is generally good; Liz Brown stands out in both productions, playing a mother with a difficult choice, and a mother who’s resigned to having none. The actors do play their parts similarly in both plays, but to dwell on this misses the point – The Edge and The Broken Bowl are challenging but open pieces of drama for young people. Big Brum respects its audience, and as such deserves respect – for Bond, today is corrupt and tomorrow is bleak, but with work like this to look to, perhaps there’s hope of a little light in the “darkening future”.
The Edge is playing at the Midlands Art Centre until 9 November, and Bond at 50 events continue until 9 December. For more information see the Big Brum website.