Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 23 January, 2008

Edward Bond first had one of his plays produced in 1962. Why has it taken 46 years until his West End début? True, he has to some extent been ahead of the wave (no pun intended), and is in many ways the godfather of “in-yer-face” theatre: Mark Ravenhill’s programme notes discuss his and Sarah Kane’s theatrical debts to Bond. True, too, Bond is seen as strong stuff… although virtually the only example ever cited is the stoning to death of a baby in his 1965 play Saved. But The Sea (1973) is a comedy; it may include a frenzied knife attack on an ocean-bloated corpse, but more characteristic of its tone are the scenes in which the local nob Mrs Rafi rides amusingly roughshod over all who cross her path in the isolated early-20th-century Norfolk village where the play is set.
Indeed, I had not appreciated hitherto how unambiguously comic a play this is. On my previous encounters, it had always struck me as a piece in which Bond’s serious social and psychological concerns jostled against the comedy rather than sneaking in deftly under cover of it. I see now that this was more likely a result of inconsistently pitched productions. Jonathan Kent’s revival (his second show as inaugural-year director of the Haymarket’s own company) maintains a sardonic edge to the comedy so that, when it does rub up against deeper matters, the two sharpen each other.
Kent’s approach is realised by his two lead actors. As Mrs Rafi, Eileen Atkins effortlessly drips patrician disdain, but scarcely holds herself any dearer than she does anyone else. One of the comic highlights of Kent’s staging is a funeral scene on a rocky beach, during which Marcia Warren as Mrs Rafi’s paid companion begins to sing ostentatious counterpoint in the hymns, and in order to marshal her back into step with the rest, Atkins admonishingly beats time on the crematory urn in her hand.
Her antithesis is David Haig as the local draper Hatch. For some reason or other, Hatch believes that vessels in danger off the treacherous coast, and those washed ashore when they founder such as young Willy Carson whose arrival drives events in the play, are in fact the advance guard for invaders from space. Whatever the origins of his delusion, what pushes him into full-blown psychosis is his commercial ruin as a result of Mrs Rafi constantly placing large orders with him then changing her mind; in the conflict between the ancien régime and the rising mercantile class, the newcomers did not have it all their own way. Haig has made something of a career out of portraying once-reasonable men gone at least partially doolally (he was a frantically jealous husband in Kent’s last production here, The Country Wife), and he treads – or prowls – his territory nimbly.
The major symbols are obvious: the booming from a nearby artillery range suggests the coming war which will redraw the social as well as the political map of Europe, and the sea itself is simply the great Elsewhere, both threatening and promising (think of Patti Smith’s “sea of possibilities”). Kent portrays both plainly but not clumsily, and adds one of his own, as the second act is overhung with a pall of what is either low cloud or smoke. Harry Lloyd as Willy Carson is almost flippantly insouciant, but somehow makes such a reading work, especially when matched with Mariah Gale’s detached dispassion as the drowned man’s betrothed. And, through both laughter and the spaces between it, Bond eloquently makes the point that “We are becoming the strange visitors to this world.”
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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