Edward Bond is one of the most influential and insightful playwrights of our time. His work presents a distorted but tragic worldview, and while understanding that the relationship between the art and the artist is complex, Bond’s work makes you worry for his sanity, seeing the world in the way that he does. The Chair Plays are a trilogy of plays from Bond that have been written in the early years of the twenty-first century. Have I none and The Under Room, both first performed at mac in Birmingham, present dystopian worlds in 2077, where the characters are controlled by a repressive and aggressive government. These plays are certainly not light entertainment, rather an exploration of society’s downfalls and humanities function and significance in the face of “ecological disaster and economic chaos”.
In Have I none, family life seems to have been obliterated and cast out as a pitfall of society. The play opens with Sara, played by Naomi Frederick, sitting blankly in her chair, face out to the audience, void of character or happiness. Her hands are placed formally on the utilitarian table, she is listening intently for the knock of the door; in a world where human life is so subjugated, this appears to be routine. Jams, her partner, enters in a simple black uniform. There is clearly no room for eccentricity in 2077, reflected in the austere set designed by Paul Wills. Jams, played by Aidan Kelly, has energy in him that Sara seems to have lost. He rambles flippantly and insensitively about his day’s work, where his team followed an old woman who hobbles in the ruins of the streets holding onto a picture; he seems to laugh at the commonality of the crime. Kelly’s cheerful delivery of the lines made paradoxical comedy of the content, where the blood of the old woman caused a red streak in her grey hair. The sense of normality created by Jams was met by the anxiety of Sara and together they presented the tension in society where old meets new, bringing with it fear, a powerful and extremely human emotion. However, the arrival of Grit, played by Timothy O’ Hara, challenged the couple’s altruism. Grit embodied the last remaining drop of human decency. He claims to be Sara’s brother, and recalls moments of their childhood. O’ Hara’s performance was extremely touching; his mannerisms were so genteel that he instantaneously became a victim. Grit wore a trench coat, traveller’s hat and a back pack that he clung to. Similarly, the characters of Sara and Jams seemed emotionally connected to their own chair. The central argument between the two originates from the time Jams outrageously ‘leant’ on Sara’s chair. Bond magically exaggerates the escalating issue of materialism, and society’s dependence on meaningless possessions. Bond’s use of irony highlighted a lack of forgiveness, generosity and a world that was in a drought of love. The play left you feeling just as a Jacobean tragedy does; melancholic but with a small sense of hope. In this case however, downsize the hope that Fortinbras brings at the end of Hamlet, to if it was Russell Brand who had walked through the door. It ended tragically, and even then Jams occupies his thoughts with the effect that the tragedy will bring to his work. Sean Holmes made great work of great writing, and created theatrical tension and poignancy in equal measure.
The Under Room was equally surreal, and presented the audience with Bond’s apparent disgust with society and adoration of humanity. However, it also recognised that society can only be as good as those who run it. In this case, the presence of the army was forcefully felt. An illegal immigrant takes refuge in the cellar of Joan’s flat; a caring and initially level-headed character, played fervently by Tanya Moodie. Instead of having an actor to play the immigrant physically and vocally, the use of a dummy created the physical aspect, and the voice of the dummy was played by Felix Scott. His performance was horrifyingly accurate and for the first time since Blood Brothers, I was moved to tears. He describes how a soldier forced him to stab a parent as if he were listing off the shopping, but it is his petrified screams in the night and the re – enactment as he sleep walks that horrifies the audience and Joan alike. Tanya Moodie, as Joan, was also pitifully realistic. Her derailment as she absorbs every ounce of the immigrant’s life was vividly shown, and she embodied human vulnerability while the experiences of the dummy have made him hard: pain necessitates survival. Aspect of The Under Room clearly echoed the tragedies of the Jacobean Era. Specifically, Moodie’s depiction of Joan’s enraged murder of the dummy resonates with the spectacular and performance-like murders of Vindice in The Revenger’s Tragedy. Joan shrieks and tears at the tissue-filled dummy, ripping the material with a small pen knife. Moodie reminded me of something primitive, a predator in the wild, tearing at the flesh of its prey. The scene was ghastly and yet the fact that it was not guts but tissue paper bordered on the style of farce. The character of Jack, played by Nicholas Gleaves, manipulates and deceives Joan, his suave and laddish exterior combined with his position of power, made him detestable. Bond was overtly showing us the hypocritical stand point of our leads and societies true condition: bleak, violent and empty.
I find it hard not to question Bond’s motives for these plays and having seen Saved, at the Lyric last year, I also admire Bond’s perspective on such a range of issues. Along with members of Saved cast, Edward Bond was also there on the night. While it was a pleasure to be on the same table as possibly the greatest contemporary playwright, my fear that I would fall victim to his diminished worldview restrained me from approaching him. He is the Shakespeare of our time, and the actors and creative team involved with the production of The Chair Plays convinced me of this. I advise you to discover his work, but be warned: you’ll never look at society in the same way again.
The Chair Plays are playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 5 May. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website. Photography by Marc Brenner.