Review – The Sea by Edward Bond, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Tuesday 29 January 2008

When an underground theatre group put on a performance of Edward Bond’s Eleven Vests in a suburb of Minsk last year, they were raided within minutes by the Belarus “Omon” police special force (motto: “We know no mercy and do not ask for any” – remind you of anyone?), arrested and hauled away, The Guardian reported.

Yes they dislike Theatre that much in Belarus, so much so that Phil is thinking of relocating there on the condition that the wine is vaugely drinkable. And if it isn’t he’ll switch to vodka.

Few productions opening this year have excited the Whingers’ jaded pallets but one had whetted Phil’s appetite as he recalled enjoying seeing Dame Judi in it a few years back at the National. Substitute another Grande Dame Eileen Atkins and it would be a sure-fire winner. Surely.

Edward Bond’s The Sea opens with a drowning. The Whingers haven’t seen a decent drowning on stage in a long while; Therese Raquin should have had one but it happened off stage which was very disappointing. This was better as you almost get to see it.

Set in a small rural East Anglian village in 1907 The Sea goes on to explore the reaction to this death amongst the uptight and frankly bonkers community. They were so mad, in fact, that Phil almost wished for the company of Andrew, who was sitting next to him but struggling (not very hard, it must be said) to cling on to consciousness.

Lording it over them like an Edwardian Andrew Margo Leadbetter is Mrs Rafi (Dame Eileen). Her behaviour is so extreme it adds most of the so-called comedy. The Sea is billed as a comedy but the Whingers weren’t laughing much. As Benedict Nightingale observes in his review, for Bond “comedy” is a relative term ” which means that no babies are stoned to death, no eyes get gouged”.

The overrated David Haig plays a mad draper (lovely word and one not heard on the London stage for yonks; due for a comeback) who rabbits on about spacecraft and aliens; the Whingers thought Haig’s casting was somewhat mundane when there are so many Scientologist Hollywood A-listers who could have done a more convincing job of it.

The highlights were probably the scenes in the mad draper’s shop during which Andrew momentarily perked up, having not seen this much haberdashery on stage since Othello. Haig gives it everything, too much as usual, but the Whingers were both fascinated and appalled at the scene where he cuts up bolts -another word you don’t hear much any more – of blue fabric (supposedly velvet but the Whingers wouldn’t have paid polyester prices for it frankly) leaving it strewn around his shop like, well, a sea. Geddit? The Whingers didn’t. They didn’t get any of it.

Every so often a character would go off on one – a reasonably bearable dialogue scene would without warning turn into a three page monologue exploring “ideas” of one kind or another. Each time one of these kicked off the Whingers furrowed their brows and tried desperately to be diligent and concentrate on the meaning, but within about five lines they found themselves distracted by, well, anything: the fact that although the beach must have been quite realistic from a distance, the actors clomped around on it and left no footprints, for example. Then there were the stage hands in the very visible wings: Phil was very taken by a pair of black trakkie bottoms with a distinctive white strip which made several memorable appearances. Then there was the draper’s shop set which wobbled and swayed every time a character entered and made the Whingers feel distinctly sea-sick. Very clever.

There were a couple of memorable lines. Phil was quite spooked by “Is the gusset too tight?” and speculated that Edward Bond may well have overheard Phil asking Andrew the same question on many occasions.

Andrew was almost glad Phil dragged him back after the interval. The highlight during the farce-like funeral scene was a hat falling from a character’s head which then dropped into the stalls. The front row was occupied by an elderly gentleman who picked it up and returned it to the stage. How Andrew wished he’d moved a row forward for the second act: being a big aficionado of millinery, he’d have had it on his head in an instant and perhaps injected a few genuine laughs into the proceedings. Another opportunity missed.

The Whingers left the Haymarket not struggling to fathom the play’s meaning. They had much more pressing issues to worry about. What does happen to all that wasted fabric each night? Is it sold on and turned into cushion covers? School uniforms? Can anyone at the Haymarket pass on a sample? Andrew’s quilting bee would be pathetically grateful.

Footnote

Those who read the Mr Billington’s extraordinary interview with Edward Bond may recall Bond’s bitterness at his treatment at the hands of the apparently evil genius Max Stafford Clark at the Royal Court:

When I sent my play Restoration to the Royal Court two decades later, it came back with lots of marginal notes from Max Stafford-Clark saying, ‘This won’t work, that won’t work.’ What was uncanny was that those were just the moments that worked in performance.”

Max Stafford Clark responded through a letter in The Guardian saying, “The only thing that is “uncanny” is how Edward’s recollection of events always ends with him in a position of impregnable moral rectitude.” and goes on to relate the events as he recalls them to have been.

He sums up: “Edward Bond is simply the most difficult person I have worked with in 40 years. I believe this may go some way to explaining why his work is so infrequently seen in this country”.

Yes, that and the plays.

We thank JMC for drawing our attention to it.

6 Responses to “Review – The Sea by Edward Bond, Theatre Royal Haymarket”

  1. Tom Davis Says:

    Whilst I think we all appreciate Jonathan Kent’s efforts to bring proper plays back to the commercial West End, does anyone else find the choice of plays slightly weird?

  2. Tim Says:

    “The Sea” is not a proper play. It is a mish-mash of various Edwardian literary sources — Erskine Childers’ “The Riddle of the Sands” for the alien invasion across the North Sea, the swivel-eyed draper from H.G.Wells, the overbearing aristocratic lady from Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde, and so on. All of it is bound up with the author’s own simmering class-resentment.
    This type of material has been standard in the subsidised theatre for decades, funded by the British taxpayer.
    Jonathan Kent seems to imagine that West End playgoers, paying their own money and expecting to be entertained and stimulated, are going to surge to the Theatre Royal Haymarket — of all places — to enjoy an evening of turgid leftist didacticism.

  3. Martin Says:

    What a wonderful website you have created, I have just stumbled across it when trying to find out a bit more about The Sea from which I have just arrived home. I actually enjoyed it more than I expected. I seem to remember it from an fringe performance in Camden Town many years ago. I think that the group that did it had previously done a version at the Minak Theatre in Cornwall, which probably only works when it is cold and wet!

    I quite like David Haigh, I have seen him in a few things and I can always hear what he says and understand what he is trying to portray. Eileen Atkins was good but should have been more imperious in the shop scene.

    The production would probably have worked better on an open modern type of stage rather than the ornate Victorian Proscenium arch Haymarket Theatre.

    I think I understood the basic premise and imagery of the play, but I did not realise that the bolts of blue cloth were supposed to be like the sea. Thanks for that.

  4. Dylanwolf Says:

    Up from the sticks, we stumbled about like yokels in Shaftesbury Avenue, before shasaying elegantly to the right side of the National Gallery to find the Theatre Haymarket.
    We were clasping our home-printed A4 tickets but at the box office found ourselves not only unable to claim a £15 printing fee discount but also allocated new seats in the stalls.

    The play a bizarre melange (a blancmange, if you will) of genres. A period comedy of manners? A psychological study of psychosis? A portrait of loss – just why did we have no depth to the story of the niece and the drowned man? Did we spot Dibley-by-the-Sea? The underlying threat of Deliverance country? A mystery thriller – surely something was dodgy about the drowning?

    Just too confusing! What motivation did any of the characters, apart from the niece grieving on the beach, have for going off on one for a page of philosophical musings?

    We hoped at the interval that the second act would sew together some of the pieces but they remained irreparably cut into three yard lengths of mismatching cloth.

    To cheer us up we stumped up for two miniscule tubs of creamy dairy confectionary, at three quid a piece evidently acquired from the milk of two sacred Tibetan cows and hand-churned by sixteen vestal virgins. Its equivalent in Brierley Hill retails at 50p but, admittedly, does taste like reconstituted polystyrene.

    Altogether a most unsatisfying evening. The opening storm was great but the following play wasn’t. Still, no babies stoned to death or eyes gouged out, eh!


  5. Dylanwolf – before up-sticksing in the future, you might do well to check our reviews. If nothing else they will help manage your expectations.

    Two questions:

    1. Which is the right side of the National Gallery and which the wrong?

    2. Please tell us in full detail the saga of the unhonoured £15 printing fee discount. That’s right up our street.

  6. jmc Says:

    “The overrated David Haig”

    I’m glad I’m not the only one that thinks that!

    I’d love to see the Whingers at a performance of Bond’s Early Morning, in which Queen Victoria has an affair with Florence Nightingale, and they all end up dead in Paradise eating each other…


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