THEATRE / Happy birthday, Edward Bond

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The Independent Culture
EDWARD BOND, the most radical playwright to emerge from the Sixties, is 60 on 18 July, an occasion passing unmarked, without so much as a revival by the National or the RSC. This is not altogether suprising; while there are those who consider him the most most savagely powerful dramatist writing today, to others Bond is simply a savage, his plays no more than dimly remembered atrocities.

Bond's early play, Saved, burst brutally on to the scene in 1965, outraging the establishment with a scene in which a baby was casually stoned to death by a gang of bored yobs. (It was to be instrumental in ridding the British theatre of the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain.) His next play, Early Morning (1968), had Queen Victoria reborn as the mother of Siamese twins, and involved in a lesbian relationship with Florence Nightingale. Bond has always revelled in irreverent revisions of history, in the tireless anatomising of man's inhumanity to man.

Violent (Bond has said that he wrote of violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote of manners), avowedly political ('It is not a playwright's job to solve the world's problems, but to make them urgent, enjoyable, interesting') and often daunting, Bond's plays cannot be ignored. Or, rather, could not. In the Eighties, Bond chose to extract himself from his position as thorn in the flesh of British theatre and plant himself in rural Cambridgeshire. He claims that no one understands how to stage his work, and has invariably been appalled by the revivals at the RSC or the National. These days, he'd rather see new work staged by amateur or youth companies. Elsewhere though, in Europe and Japan, he is honoured. And he himself believes he is writing better than ever. To judge from the two plays he wrote two years ago for television, Olly's Prison and Tuesday, he might be right. But while his detractors insist he has climbed so far up on to the moral high ground that he has lost touch with humanity, there are those who believe that without him the British theatre is a lesser place. Georgina Brown asked for their tributes . . .

TONY COULT

I didn't realise you were 60, but that's often the case with teachers. They somehow seem ageless. So how to wish you all I do without sounding mawkish? (You would mock that sentiment stone-dead with a peppery, eyebrows-arched scoffing laugh). I picked up Saved in 1969 to have another name to drop in Finals exams. It was a revelation - like staring into a limpid pool, as you wrote yourself about the work of John Clare (The Fool). This, I knew, is how I wanted plays to be written. Hardly a week goes by without the truths of that play, and its mundane atrocities, being re-enacted here, now, in England. At the same time, the politics to deal with such decay struggle under a scummy tide of State lies, tacky market-place illusions and a clammy deference to authority. No wonder you're unfashionable]

You are a great teacher. You create the conditions for learning, and you make it memorable, in words and images of astonishing power. Some may want you rehabilitated back into the centre of our cultural life. I don't. It's not you who needs rehabilitating, it's the world you live in, and that your work unashamedly seeks to transform.

Thank you for many things, including turning up 20 years ago at our crumbling community arts base in back-street Leeds in your white Aston Martin drophead coupe - oh, how our righteousness was mocked] And thank you for coming into a Green Room three years ago and picking up my two-year-old son. He looked, suddenly, safe and rooted. Now I'm getting mawkish. You promised to write him a story, and you haven't delivered. Thomas can read now. How about it?

Happy birthday.

Tony Coult is the author of 'The Plays of Edward Bond' (Methuen 1977, 1979)

BOB PECK

It's selfish and masochistic I suppose, but I do enjoy working on your plays because they're so demanding and the rewards - artistic, I mean - are pretty good. Your reputation is for stage brutality and violence but I've seen productions when you've scored bull's-eyes doubled-topped with humour. You reach audiences on a level at which they're not normally touched (Shakespeare and Greek tragedy come to mind, but you're now, not then), and your plays change the way we perceive nature (for a few hours anyway).

It's difficult working on your plays, the language is spare and intense, sometimes violent; ditto the visual imagery. Ten years ago you came to see us in Lear, which we did at the RSC, first in England then on tour in Europe. As it went from venue to venue it expanded and developed. In Berlin the Wall was still up, and the audience brought their own emotions to bear on the play. It was one of the more extraordinary, powerful week's work I've ever done.

When I first met you, beyond providing the text, you didn't contribute to the rehearsal process. Now you go out of your way to work with actors. I really enjoyed working on Tuesday. You had to battle hard to get us to understand what you were trying to get us to say, and I felt you knew you were only going to get a part of the way. After the recording you vanished, and we were left toasting you in your absence. British audiences likewise toast you in your absence. Once reviled, The Pope's Wedding and Saved are appreciated now. We're always going to be behind, but come on, show us the way.

It's conventional to wish someone a happy birthday, so you might reject it. But there you are. Happy birthday.

Bob Peck is in 'Rutherford and Son' at the National

PAUL TAYLOR

I would want to say in praise of your work what Helen Gardner said at the Lady Chatterley trial in praise of Lawrence's novel: that its value lies in moving one to 'profound dissent'. Take your views on the function of art and artists. In Lear, you show how the proletarian revolution turns out to be every bit as ruthless as the regime it replaces. Those who would overthrow oppression may, this play admits, merely enforce their own form of totalitarianism. But doesn't this also hold true of artist-reformers such as yourself?

Your poem 'On Music' argues that because barbarities were performed in Auschwitz and Chile to music, 'there must be a new music / A music you can't hang men to / A music that stops you breaking musicians' hands'. 'Must', 'can't', 'stops': it makes such music sound worryingly indistinguishable from brainwashing and raises doubts about whether, in a society that would enforce it, anything recognisable as art could flourish. The idea that art must lead the way to social justice is not a liberation from oppression, but an example of it. Still, I would rather disagree with work that possesses the boldness, rigour and sweep of yours than sort of agree with the bland stuff normally on offer.

Paul Taylor is the Independent's theatre critic

PAUL FREEMAN

Seeing Saved and Lear changed my life. They said something directly about my world - your world too - of surburban London. I was so moved that I wrote to Bill Gaskill, which led to my working with him.

It was a privilege to be allowed complete freedom under your clear direction on The Woman (National). You told us to get straight to the politics of the play and not go for effects. And it was a great honour to receive your poem A Free Man.

Happy birthday to you, Edward, and I wish you many more years of powerful, painful writing in that arboretum in the Gog Magog Hills. It's redundant to say, 'Don't let the bastards grind you down.' They never have.

Paul Freeman is in 'Hamlet' and 'Midsummer Night's Dream' at the Open Air Theatre, London

BILL GASKILL

My feeling is that there ought to be some sort of rapprochement between you and the British theatre, and whatever can bring that about would be a good thing.

It's very difficult for a writer to say he will compromise and write something to please other people, but a writer's plays have to be done to validate what they are doing.

I feel that your gift and talent is enormous, and whatever the reasons are for the divisions between you and the theatre, they are just sad.

Edward Bond sent his first plays to the Royal Court in London, where the director Bill Gaskill and Keith Johnstone led the Writer's Group. It was largely thanks to Gaskill's encouragement and patronage that much of Bond's early work - 'The Pope's Wedding', 'Saved', 'Early Morning' and 'Lear' - was staged (under Gaskill's direction) at the Court

CICELY BERRY

I've always found working with you so stimulating and illuminating. I always learn something. I remember when we ran an actors' workshop together for the RSC in 1992 and we worked on three scenes from King Lear and from your play Jackets. You had this extraordinary way of getting at the centre image of each scene and, out of that, finding a way to kindle the imagination of the actor. In one scene from Lear you made them walk round and round as if walking round a freezing Siberian plain. The result was amazing. The really important thing is that you helped the actors to understand that writing doesn't necessarily come from the brain, but from somewhere else which is a mystery; and that often a writer doesn't fully understand what a line means when they write it. You made the actors feel the lateral level rather than the literal level of a text. I remember you saying that words are like the top of an earthshift; full of possibility, not meaning. Your eloquence is a rare gift. The theatre needs your clarity of vision. To quote from your poem One Leaving the Theatre, 'Leave the theatre hungry / For change.' That is your challenge for our theatre. It is the only way to make us change, to face the reality we are afraid of. I wish we could work together more. Happy birthday.

Cicely Berry is Voice Director at the RSC

(Photograph omitted)

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