Whatever happened to Edward Bond?
He's a genius of English theatre, but his new play is being premiered in a pub. Mark Ravenhill wonders how it went wrong
Tuesday 02 November 2010
The English theatre has for some 50 years told itself that it is a writers' theatre. It's odd, then, that the English theatre should have produced a substantial list of playwrights who have become alienated from our theatres, often at the peak of their powers. In my imagination there's a strange hinterland, an empty multi-storey car park standing at a point equidistant from both the Royal Court and the National Theatres, where the shades of once-celebrated playwrights such as Arnold Wesker, John Arden, Howard Barker and Gregory Motton wander up and down.
Personally, this is a salutary observation for me to make. I'm 44 now. It's 15 years since I was first called into the Royal Court Theatre (via Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint company) to discuss producing my play Shopping and Fucking. Since then I've spent much of my time in the big theatre institutions. But I'm aware that I'm now entering a dangerous phase in my life. Not only am I reaching the peak age for men to have a heart attack, I'm also entering that time when British theatre sends its more troublesome writers into exile.
There is no play that more acutely captures the experience of being a writer who is happily snatched up by London literary circles and then just as hastily dispatched as Edward Bond's The Fool. Bond's brilliant play charts the journey of the 19th-century poet John Clare from his life as an East Anglian agrarian worker, to a brief period of literary fame in London, and then back to a home where he is now lost, no longer a farm worker but no longer a famous poet.
There's a sweet irony in the fact that this play was first produced at the very epicentre of London's fashionable theatre life, the Royal Court in 1975, when Bond was widely acknowledged to be the most significant living English playwright. The irony turns distinctly sour, though, when you realise that this landmark play has received no major London revival since and is currently playing in a room above a pub Kilburn which – at least on the night that I visited – has an overwhelming stench of stale piss.
Of all the English theatre's exiled writers none is more significant than Bond. His 1965 play Saved, in which a group of youths stone a baby to death, was instrumental in ending the Lord Chamberlain's censorship of the English stage.
And yet in 1985, during the RSC's rehearsals for his War Plays trilogy, Bond walked away from the big English theatre institutions and has since premiered his new work either in France, or with the Birmingham-based theatre in education company Big Brum. Since I've been busy during most of the past two decades forging a career for myself in London's theatre world, I'd assumed that Bond's major work was behind him, accepting the view widely held in English theatre circles that he was now a cantankerous man producing ever more erratic and irrelevant plays.
So it was a huge shock for me to see a production of Bond's 2005 play The Under Room in the basement of that same pub, the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, a couple of weeks ago as part of a six-play retrospective of the writer's work. Written originally for a tour of Birmingham schools, it is as good as anything as Bond has ever written. By the end of the performance I was shaken and tearful, not only because the play had asked such troubling questions about the way we live our lives, but because of an overwhelming sadness that such a significant play can be so marginalised.
Now there's a new play; the first Bond premiere in London in 25 years, and it is at the Cock Tavern. There Will Be More is a contemporary investigation of the Medea myth. It's well worth making the trip to the 60-seat theatre upstairs. This is where the writers' theatre that everyone talks about is really happening.
'There Will Be More', Cock Theatre, London NW6 ( www.cocktaverntheatre.com) to 13 November. It will be reviewed tomorrow
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