Sunday, January 20, 2008

Edward Bond's THE SEA ... and memory


Edward Bond's THE SEA is being revived at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. I first saw his work as a sixteen year-old, a production of SAVED in which a baby was battered to death in a pram in a Leicester Haymarket studio production, and came away so affected that the police pulled my moped in on the journey home for going through a red light.
THE SEA has long been a favourite play of mine. My personal 'truth' of Shakespeare is that he explores the nature of growing up on an island, and needing to break free of its shores in order to lose native prejudices. Our island, our 'Albion', is viewed as a stage which is used as a metaphor for all of life ... 'all the world's a stage'. Such characters as Cordelia are true to themselves and so are forced into exile, and returning to these shores and straitened human values means they die. Lear too dies, howling on the shore, yearning to escape. Blind Gloucester marches toward a cliff, longing to step from the island and out of his life. I explore such island themes in my own writings, and Bond's THE SEA is our best exploration 20th century of it. (It's quite telling that Bond also reworked King Lear, as his LEAR.) So I jumped to Saturday's performance (watch out for the 35 pound seats on the front row of the upper circle, from where you can't see a thing unless you grab the rail and lean over the balcony). The performance is in previews it seems and is still coming up to speed. David Haig is the highlight, terrific as Hatch, the mad draper. Eileen Atkins somehow lags behind the pace as Mrs Raffi, remembering the lines and striking the attitudes but hardly commanding.
I studied the play years ago. Had I read it so well that I remembered a wondrous production? I was beginning to think so, till my sister reminded me we had seen Judi Dench play the splendid Mrs Raffi role. That was in a Sam Mendes 1990 production at the National Theatre, so 18 years ago. 18 years seems to render me forgetful but that's maybe not so drastic since it's a lifetime for some - today was the family celebration of my nephew Max's 18th birthday.
I best remember the play for two great characters and three great scenes (the rehearsing of an amateur dramatic production; the draper flashing shears around rolls of cloth; the magnificent scattering of the ashes as hymns are played by the shore). The long speech of the hermit Evens at the end, fine as it is, rather knocks the dramatic stuffing out of the piece. Evens knows what he says may sound grand but amounts to nothing more than a hill of beans, and the production snaps shut as our putative young lovers make plans for running away.

I remembered not much liking the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. I tried years ago, but the humour passed me by. I also have an old aversion to fiction that purports to be a character's autobiography. It seems along with forgetting memories of play productions, I should shove aside all my old prejudices. I've just finished Robertson Davies's Fifth Business, a fictional autobiography that begins his Deptford Trilogy. It is terrific, lusciously written, smartly paced, nimbly structured and stocked with terrific characters, and laced with pages of intriguing viewpoints. I particularly enjoyed a young business tyro's appreciation of Jesus, recounting the saviour's life story to prove him a man born to great wealth preaching an economic message.

It's been quite a cultural weekend. Friday night took in the opening Judith Weir event at the Barbican, the latest in their weekends given to contemporary composers. Last year's was a revelation, with the work of Sofia Gubaidulina. Judith Weir sadly fell short of that mark. She seems to write in the school of Malcolm Arnold, way too many notes and noise as though chasing a film score. She sets Taoist texts, but could do with slowing down, opening up, and letting a little silence illuminate her work. Her pieces wilt at the end, scuttling off into silence as though exhausted.

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