I was 20 when I first read Edward Bond's play Saved. For the first time, I discovered a playwright who was my contemporary. Before then I'd been told by teachers that playwrights had the power to disturb, to challenge their audiences, to capture the spirit of their age. If I'm honest, I'd never quite believed it. Apparently audiences had rioted at the original performances of JM Synge's Playboy of the Western World. John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, they told me, had heralded the arrival of a new youthful excitement in British theatre writing. But when I picked up plays like these, I found work that could be studied, that could be admired – but nothing that seemed to belong in the same world as mine. But with Saved I found something altogether different.
I resolved that summer to read every Bond I could get my hands on. Lack of money – I was a student – didn't stand in my way. I made a list of Bond's plays and shoplifted a play a day. I pored over the stolen bounty, trying to understand as much of this exciting new voice as I could.
Saved, although written in 1965, was the most contemporary play I'd come across. It wasn't the play's most notorious scene that lodged itself in my mind – the scene in which a group of youths stone a baby to death in a south London park. It was the smaller details of the play: the way the young characters offer each other sex in a totally casual way as though they are offering cigarettes, the bitter rows over the ownership of a copy of the Radio Times, the uncomprehending love that the mother of the dead baby gives to Fred, leader of the stoning.
The play was not easy to read. Bond had stripped away all of the conventional rhetoric of British theatre. The great speeches of Shakespeare, Congreve, Bernard Shaw, Osborne had all gone. Instead, the characters communicated in terse, demotic lines, often only speaking a few words at a time. The action progressed as much through a series of stark visual images as it did any words – from the opening comically deadpan seduction scene through to the final quiet hope of Len mending a chair.
But his was a world I instantly recognised. The world of listless, rootless youth, casual acts of sex and random acts of violence in south London parks were very much part of the landscape as I reached my 20th birthday in 1986. Here was a play that breathed the same air as me.
What I loved about it was that it didn't offer up any immediate analysis – there was no obvious author's voice, no scenes of debate that might guide me to come to the "right" conclusion. The events of the play were presented sharply, starkly but somehow you could sense the voice of the author – shrewd, enquiring, with an ear for the cruel comedy in our everyday battles for status.
Working my way through my stolen books, I realised that here was a hugely ambitious body of work. After the stark social realism of Saved, Bond had moved straight on to a savage satirical dream play, Early Morning, in which Queen Victoria has a lesbian affair with Florence Nightingale and the princes Arthur and George are locked together as Siamese twins. A final act, set in heaven, sees the characters consuming each other as they descend into cannibalism.
The 1971 play Lear is an epic re-writing of Shakespeare – an argument with the greatest play in the English language, exploring what its themes of power and insanity, justice and revenge mean for the contemporary world. And then the comedy of The Sea, set in Edwardian England at the brink of war, with the terrifyingly hilarious matriarch Mrs Rafi, like Wilde's Lady Bracknell with her fangs exposed, ruling a small seaside community with an iron fist and an acid tongue.
And on to 1973's Bingo, which brilliantly imagines a meeting between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, and The Fool, charting the life and destruction of the English working-class poet John Clare. And there was the 1981 play Restoration, which contains arguably Bond's most memorable character, the monstrous Lord Are, who marries and then kills for money.
It was thrilling to see that here was a playwright who was clearly firing on all cylinders, hungry for the possibilities the theatre offered him. There was the provocative invention of Early Morning, the total banning of which by the Lord Chamberlain played a big part in the end of British theatre censorship. There was the succession of brilliant images through which every play progressed – eyes being sucked out by a clinical machine in Lear, the ladies of the town attempting to stage a play in The Sea, a boxing match in The Fool.
In many ways, Bond's is a very English sensibility. There's a faith in the innate goodness of people- and an anger about the way that goodness is corrupted by the brutalisation and bureaucracy of society. It's a sensibility he shares with Blake or the Shelley of "The Mask of Anarchy". And there's a constant dialogue with Shakespeare in all of Bond's plays – both as a source of inspiration, almost a spur to be more ambitious in his own writing – but also as a figure to be questioned and criticised. The Shakespeare who retires to Stratford in Bingo and becomes a landowner and a suicide is an artist who has betrayed the theatre and the people.
I discovered that I wasn't alone in my enthusiasm for Bond. The late Sarah Kane was certainly influenced by his work. "You can learn everything you need to know about playwriting," she once told me, with a hint of witty overstatement, "by studying Saved." When Kane's play Blasted arrived at the Royal Court in 1995, causing as much of a storm as Saved had done 30 years before, it was obvious that the brutalised language of the characters, the Goyaesque images of the soldier and the baby, the sly wit and searing anger were definitely Kane's own – but that she was aware of, and drawing on the inspiration of, Bond's plays, right through from Saved to his "War Plays" of the mid-1980s. But it was also the way that Kane's fierce moral vision had found shape in a taut theatrical form that made her the successor to Bond.
Three years ago, at the Sheffield Crucible theatre, Jonathan Kent directed a revival of Lear on the main stage. With many younger playwrights now asking how do they move out of the studio theatre and reclaim the larger stages, Lear – with its epic story and stark images – seemed to offer some pointers as to a way out of the narrowness of so much small- scale new writing. More than ever, it seems to me, Bond is our contemporary. He asks us to make tough moral choices, to explore what it is to be human. We need him.
Jonathan Kent's production of 'The Sea' runs from 17 January to 19 April at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (0870 400 0626; www.trh.co.uk)Reuse content