Even granted that the Minerva Studio's repertoire is often palpably more adventurous than its big sister the Festival Theatre, the notion of confronting a Chichester audience with the work of Edward Bond seems a bold, almost implausible one. Notwithstanding that 1973's The Sea is Bond in a (relatively!) holiday mood, the conflict between production style and the uncertain dramatic content is the evening's biggest puzzler.
Bond has chosen his ingredients well. He takes an archetypal plot, the arrival of a stranger into a small, inward-looking community – in this case James Thornton's Carson, shipwrecked on a turn-of-the-century East Anglian beach in a storm which killed his boating companion. To this is added tension between differing social and psychological orders: the old-school patrician tyranny of Mrs Rafi versus the upheavals promised by the rising commercial class, personified by a draper who happens to be completely round the bend, fixated with the idea that Carson is the advance guard for invaders from space. Top off with symbols in both large (the periodic booming of guns on a nearby artillery range) and extra large sizes (the constant looming presence of sea itself, albeit standing in a morally neutral position – possible threat, but also possible opportunity of change; this is simply what poet Patti Smith called "the sea of possibilities"), and it is a rich mixture, but one which Bond never stirs in thoroughly enough. His comedy is frequently as broad as a 1970s television sitcom, and his passages of more profound comment tend to interrupt this silliness obtrusively rather than to sneak in under its Trojan-horse cover.
Put simply, director Sean Holmes has helmed a solid production of a wavering play, and has done so by taking choices that Bond seemed to funk in the writing. Unfortunately, whenever a conflict arises between the dark grey metaphor and moralising characteristic of Bond and the broad comedy he uses here, Holmes's decision is to play the comedy. The result is to maroon the unavoidably Bondian elements even more forlornly than did the playwright himself. Susan Engel's Mrs Rafi is a barking joy, but this is because her eccentricity so completely dominates her big-house despotism rather than being merely a facet of it; when she is given a late speech which promises insight into her own character, Bond once again fumbles matters into just another kdegree of specioousness. Alan Williams as the beach-dwelling outcast Evens is the only character to avoid being rendered as either a cartoon or a cipher. The Sea constantly declares that it has depths, but Bond never summons the resolve to trawl them properly and Holmes settles for a pleasure cruises.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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