Some playwrights just demand to be heard, and none more so than Edward Bond, the outspoken writer whose revolutionary work Saved bellowed loud and brutal choruses against the Lord Chamberlain’s policy on censorship back in 1965.
In a more recent work entitled Chair, pulled up by Lyric Hammersmith in a short season of Bond’s work, it’s hard for a modern audience not to sit up and take notice. Set in 2077, Chair depicts a world characterised by two colliding vehicles of punishment: violence and policy. In this story of relationships soiled by a nameless power, the combining forces of aggression and manipulation fuel the actions of the characters. Significantly, neither element is more fearful than the other.
And can we develop in a world characterised by fear? Of course not. In an adaptation dragged into creative authenticity through Bond’s own direction, we meet Billy (Timothy O’Hara), a 26-year-old whose isolation from culture means that he will never grow up. Hidden in Alice’s house since the cautious woman discovered him as a baby, Billy’s existence seems to be marked by perpetual childishness, an obsessive circular state that is heightened first by the multi-coloured drawings that coat the walls, and then by the fact that, like the clothing of a cartoon character, Billy’s t-shirt refuses to stay torn.
Indeed, this production pivots on the point where childish fantasy becomes clever absurdism. Bond’s tightly measured direction reinforces this through sharp, dance-like movements, which come across as just as obsessive and artificial in their orchestration as Billy’s continuous drawings. Right-angled stances and defined, awkward steps work in contrast to Billy’s unrefined expressions. Tanya Moodie’s Alice weaves skillfully between these two extremes, letting her transitions jar and drip with calculated tension. When Alice delivers her last requests to Billy, her speech is calm, rehearsed and deliberate, yet occasionally betrays a more familiar and natural motherly instruction. “Don’t get it on your clothes”, she instructs with a carefree inflection, her tone making it easy to forget that she’s talking about her own ashes, not PVA and glitter.
Sparse yet significant, Bond’s vision of 2077 gives us very little to look forward to. It also, in its bleak vision of a society ruled by policy and acronym, provides us with little that is new. The cutting brutality of this piece lies, then, not in its dystopia, but in the tightly woven, stagnant details. With smiley faces, Billy’s crayon-drawn fantasies of expression stand in fierce opposition to a regime that bans eye-contact; Billy’s drawings of animals also work to sculpt a ode to observation – timely in a world where looking out of the window raises suspicion and communication with a rule-breaker is forbidden.
By borrowing a futuristic tone from Orwell and Atwood, Bond also breeds a deliberate sense of fictionality, which flickers throughout this production. The crayon marks that cover Billy’s clothing are one indication of this, reminding us that the youth is even more of an artistic construction than his illustrations. Another such metafictional moment occurs when Alice invites Billy to join the “real game”, stressing, from her privileged position within a work of imagination, that it is necessary for Billy to leave this small world of his own construction in order to grow up. It’s interesting to also note that Bond refers to his scenes as “pictures”. Indeed, Billy isn’t the only one constructing fictional worlds, and this tantalisingly intelligent piece of theatre is fiercely aware of this fact. Throughout Chair, it is hard to fully believe in the characters or their situations, but the raw nature of their interactions strikes with a primal force.
Photography by Marc Brenner.