Censorship is not a word we hear very often in Western 21st century society. However, the theatre world was left reeling when Edward Bond’s Saved ignited the censorship debate in the UK after premiering at the Royal Court Theatre in 1965. It had previously been performed under “club” auspices, but when it was performed in front of large private audiences, the Lord Chamberlain prosecuted those involved in the production. This sparked criticism, and the event was hugely significant in the abolition of theatre censorship in 1968. In the wake of this controversy, Saved has not been performed in this country for around 25 years. However, the Lyric Hammersmith has now opened its doors to a new production and, in light of the riots in Libya and London, Bond’s radical statements and rejection of the all-singing, all-dancing illusions of the stage seem to be just as revolutionary as they did more than 40 years ago.

A play about the poverty and frustration of a generation of young adults living on the dole on council estates, Saved is set in London in the 1960s. Ashley Scott-Layton (Assistant Director of the Lyric Hammersmith’s production), notes that there is “a clear link between the behaviour of the characters in Saved and that witnessed during the riots”. He describes how Saved “presents a section of society who, having been denied their ability to positively change their lives, begin to turn on each other. This violent lashing-out manifests itself not just physically but verbally and indeed is present in everything from humour to love.” Morgan Watkins, playing Len in the production, agrees that Saved “has reaffirmed the idea of a voiceless, trapped people struggling with existence itself and finding it hard to feel part of anything”. This is “the flesh and bones” of social unrest. The Lyric’s production is far from ignorant of recent political news. Watkins points out that “the riots highlighted a mass of issues. I don’t think the riots were surprising and I think they were just the tip of a far more worrying iceberg. Immorality seems to run through our society from the top to the bottom.” For Watkins, Saved communicates a message of social reality that is still applicable today. Scott-Layton seconds this, hoping that “audiences will question the cause of these behaviours – what incites such violence?”

Scott-Layton claims that “Saved is concerned with violence but it isn’t about portraying violence in order to shock people.” Yet this was the exact reason the play was censored and cut in the past. A scene depicted the killing of a baby has become one of the most notorious moments of the play, but Scott-Layton suggests it “isn’t necessarily the most violent moment; it is perhaps the most physically explosive but there are moments, especially of verbal or psychological violence, which are far more disturbing”. When Saved was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre (with the support of Laurence Olivier), “theatre censorship was still prevalent…the Royal Court’s decision to stage Saved uncut set in motion the end of censorship”. Bond claimed at the time that censorship would drastically alter the meaning of the play by allowing the audience to shy away from the ugly truths of society. Scott-Layton describes how the violent scenes were about “a whole new way of presenting drama and representing the issues of the people it depicted”. It is the darkest moments of the play that reveal “how far violence has penetrated our way of thinking. For Edward [Bond], our lack of autonomy has left us without self-respect. For him, the boys [in the play] kill the baby to gain that self-respect.”

Despite critical focus on the stoning scene, the violence in Saved is not intended to be momentary or sensational; it has a resounding impact. Bond’s examples of violence are, in Scott-Layton’s mind, “being used to explore an important aspect of the human condition”. Similarly, Watkins argues that the “themes of Saved are universal and as Edward [Bond] says, are perhaps more relevant than when it was first performed in the ’60s”.

However, this is not only due to the topical context of the summer of 2011. The production’s Director, Sean Holmes, has argued that Saved is “massively influential” for British theatre itself. Scott-Layton reveals the play “hasn’t been performed in London for over 25 years because Edward hasn’t allowed it. He has felt that many directors haven’t understood the play and besides, he has written a whole body of work since.” Furthermore, Bond inspired an entire generation of playwrights during this time. Most notably, one of the “New Brutalists”, Sarah Kane, “often wrote of her admiration of Bond’s work, saying that everything you needed to know about playwriting could be learnt by reading Saved.” Her play Blasted (1995) elicited similar responses to Saved, with a major revival of the play at the Lyric Hammersmith last year receiving mixed reviews. However, Scott-Layton points out the relationship between Bond and Kane is mutual: “Edward had a huge respect for Sarah. He saw both productions of Blasted at the Court and praised them quite highly.” As for the fact that the Lyric has been responsible for revivals of both plays, this “perhaps just represents Sean [Holmes] and the Lyric’s desire to stage urgent pieces by important writers who might otherwise be underserved by mainstream theatres.” But what has changed for Bond, then, that made him allow this production? Scott-Layton sees a clear answer: in Holmes, Bond “has found a director for whom he has a real respect but also, interestingly, he suggests that when he wrote the play it was a prediction. Now he feels that it is a prediction come true.”

Watkins highlights that Saved works on many levels; it is not a straightforward depiction of violence on the streets. A concept that emerges from the production is the dislocation of people from one another and how this can lead to social strife and conflict. Watkins admits, “I refuse to take things on the surface level and always want to understand more, which like Len sometimes distances you further from people and gets you in trouble”. It is this quest for knowledge and understanding that ultimately leaves Len isolated. Watkins philosophises that “if a society offers you nothing but a quest for the material, and no place, then people may destroy it…and take all they can to feel as if they have something”. With an anecdote, he adds, “If you don’t put any care into how you plant a seed, do not be surprised if it does not flower. The play shows people with a life stripped of meaning, a society that offers them no voice… [with] people in search of a reason to be”. It is Bond’s desire, then, to ask how this voiceless populace, may find a way of expressing themselves.

In the play’s quest for knowledge and identity, audiences are undoubtedly tested. Scenes of violence are sure to shock, but Scott-Layton confides that the artistic team “hope that [audiences] feel some slight change has occured within them. A question raised or a though process provoked into being.” As our understandings of the representations of violence in the “real world” and the theatrical stage alter and mutate, one thing is for certain: a play almost 50 years old is still offering a pertinent and provocative comment on today’s society. Scott-Layton affirms one statement that rings clear and true: “Edward Bond continues to be one of the most challenging and urgent voices today”. Perhaps now, Bond’s questions and quests for knowledge will be met and considered by the liberal minds of audiences who have now witnessed his message firsthand.

The Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Saved plays until 5 November. More information and tickets available from the Lyric Hammersmith’s website. This production will be followed in 2012 by three of Bond’s one act plays: Have I None (2000), Chair (2005) and The Under Room (2005).

Image credit: Simon Kane